Web search engines accused of posting 'adverts in disguise'

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Eight leading internet search engines have been accused by a US consumer watchdog of misleadingly placing paid advertisements among the search results listed.

Commercial Alert filed a formal complaint on Monday with the Federal Trade Commission against the practice of putting advertisements in search engine results without clear disclosure that the "ads are ads". The advertisements are either incorporated in the list of results or appear alongside them. Search engines are the basic tools for finding websites. Those named in the complaint included AltaVista, Netscape, Lycos and Microsoft's MSN.com.

"These search engines have chosen crass commercialism over editorial integrity," said Gary Ruskin, the executive director of Commercial Alert. "They should be required to say that the ads are ads."

The FTC was asked to determine whether this violated federal law on deceptive advertising. Mr Ruskin said that the practice had crept in following the crash in the dot.com market, which has led to pressure on traditional "banner" advertising revenues.

"During the last year, some search engines sacrificed editorial integrity for higher profits... Advertisers pay the search engine companies to have their products and services listed 'high' in, or near, the search results. Thus the listings look like information from an objective database... But really they are paid ads in disguise," said Mr Ruskin.

For instance, a search under "used car" on altavista.co.uk throws up as its first two results, under the heading "Featured Sites", the web pages of Auto Trader, the car magazine, and Jamjar, the online car retailer. In fact, both are paid advertisements. The actual search results come lower down the page.

Kristi Kaspar, a spokeswoman for AltaVista, said: "Based on the feedback we have received, our users are very clear about the distinctions."

The watchdog added that other operators, such as Google, clearly labelled advertisements and would not put them within search results.