The Searcher and the Advertiser

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One of my ongoing information retrieval interests revolves around the relationship between the search engine user and the search engine advertiser.  In a search engine that is supported by advertising, there is a natural conflict of interest that exists between the users and the advertisers.  Users want to find the information that is most relevant to themselves and advertisers want the users to see the information that is most financially rewarding to the advertiser. These two sets of information do not always overlap.

Web search engines play a crucial role is mediating this conflict.  They often, and vocally, claim that they successfully negotiate between these two interests because they physically separate advertising results from organic results.  However, it is sometimes glaringly obvious that separation alone is not enough.  In particular, when it comes to user control of advertising results, via the engine’s own query operators, search engines can and do place the desires of the advertisers (and thus the search engine’s own financial interests) above the desires of the users.

Take the following concrete example: Imagine a user interested in searching for [cellular phones].  However, suppose that this user has done business in the past with (again just for example) Verizon and does not want to do business with them in the future.  So the user instructs the engine not to show any results containing the term “verizon”.  The full query is [cellular phones -verizon].  (The minus operator is defined by the search engine as having the following functionality: “Attaching a minus sign immediately before a word indicates that you do not want pages that contain this word to appear in your results.”)

The top results returned by the search engine are:

Verizon is correctly absent from the unsponsored results pages.  But it is quite present — ranked at the top in fact — of the sponsored results pages.  Both the display text as well as the landing page of that top sponsored result contain the term “verizon”.

Verizon is likely a high rate keyword bidder on the phrase [celluar phones].  So in the absence of any other information, it is natural that their page gets displayed when that phrase is used as part of a query.  There was, however, other information: the [-verizon] term.  The search engine user specifically requested that pages with that term not appear.

The search engine summarily ignored that user request and served the advertiser page anyway.

So even though ad result pages are separated from the organic result pages,  it is quite clear that there is an ongoing, unresolved conflict between the searcher and the advertiser.  And the search engine, rather than focusing on the user’s needs, placed the needs of the advertiser on top.  Quite literally.