Are ads, sponsored links and search engine optimization screwing up search results? I just did a little test, and my conclusion is Yes. From now on, I'm going to start using Ask.com and other less popular sites, because I think they're less polluted by all of the above.
This investigation started after Jeff Jarvis noted that Pontiac urged viewers in an ad simply to "Google Pontiac," instead of typing the URL. So I Googled Pontiac. And I tried the same thing with three other search engines. All services pointed to Pontiac's official site. But for a comprehensive Pontiac search, I found Ask.Com provided the richest options. There were clear choices to narrow or expand the search, and a link to a Web site that compares Pontiac prices with other lines.
Yahoo also pointed to a price-comparison site. But the results are dominated by sponsored search results at the top and ads to the right. The result is that only about 25% of the first page view, the lower left quadrant, shows the search results. Google's results are similarly cluttered with ads. And the third result is from a Pontiac dealer in Philadelphia, which is of limited interest to most readers. The site was probably engineered to rise in Google. MSN looks much like Google, but with fewer ads.
If millions of Websurfers join me in the migration toward Ask and other also-rans, advertisers and optimizers will follow. Today's pristine results will grow cluttered and rigged. Execs at wannabe search kings, of course, are longing for the day. I'm not.