Search engines are blossoming into a terrific business: a powerful tool for finding out just about anything. But a BusinessWeek investigation reveals that some search engines are rigged: They accept payment from companies for special treatment, which frequently boosts their ranking in search results. And they do it without telling Web surfers that they're receiving what is, in effect, paid advertising. Deceiving customers is never a wise business decision.
Which companies are doing it? Not Google, the leading search engine, which relies on its own technology for Internet search and clearly marks the paid ads it carries. AOL also uses Google's search technology. But Yahoo!, MSN, and Lycos do accept paid inclusions. The BusinessWeek investigation showed that 10 out of 20 advertisers and online marketers interviewed saw their rankings move up in searches on these sites after they paid to have their listing considered. This kind of hidden advertising will undermine the search business as consumers come to realize that they are not getting objective information but predominantly the listings of deep-pocketed companies. And if companies that can secretly pay are elevated toward the top of seemingly objective search results, the Internet's ballyhooed role as a democratic medium will certainly erode.
Google and AOL are setting a high standard. Yahoo! and Microsoft are not. C'mon, guys. Shape up.