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High user distrust of ads blending in online search results in India: survey

By Saurav Sen

NEW DELHI, November 11: A new study of Indian internet users has revealed that paid advertising getting interspersed with natural search results is not quite what users want.

While a lot of research has been done on user perception about search in Europe and the United States, this is the first time a study of this nature brings in a data-driven India perspective about internet search.

India’s internet user base has already crossed the 100 million mark recently, riding on a telecom boom and is tipped to become the world’s third-largest internet market after China and the United States by December 2011.

The pioneering study, conducted by the CUTS Institute for Regulation & Competition (CIRC), in the two metros of Delhi NCR and Mumbai, apart from Jaipur, throws up interesting user perceptions about search engines and search results. The study was conducted among 500 respondents, almost equitably divided among the three cities.

CIRC is a subsidiary of Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS) International, an NGO with presence in Europe, Africa, Asia-Pacific and India.

More than two-thirds of the respondents interviewed for the survey were active internet users, who accessed the internet more than seven times a week, all of whom used online search. According to the study findings, while the preference of web browsers was almost equally split among Microsoft Internet Explorer, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox, all respondents preferred Google as their search engine. This highlights the level of faith users have in Google’s brand and search technology.

About 31 percent of the respondents were unaware that search engines also promote their own content alongside other websites and services, while half of them did not prefer search engines doing so. Almost 64 percent of the respondents were aware that search engines capture user data from their searches, while 29 percent felt it was wrong, and wanted to switch search engines upon knowing this.

Almost one-third of the respondents clicked on the top ads, which accrue revenues for the search engine, but only a negligible 1 percent clicked on the side ad bar on the search results page. In the survey experiments, top ads appeared on 90 percent of search result pages on Google.com.

More than half of the respondents were unable to identify the top ad bar correctly. A comparatively lower 36percent were unable to identify the side ad bar on a search result page. Almost two-thirds of the respondents in Jaipur were unable to spot the difference between natural search results and paid results. Nearly half the respondents stated they would never or hardly ever click on search results that they knew were ads.

More than two-thirds of respondents felt that natural search results are more useful than ads. Less than 30 percent of the respondents considered ads as trustworthy as natural results. Over 40 percent felt they should not appear above natural results. The survey concluded that there is a need for enhancing awareness on the science of search monetization, and for more transparency in search results, from a consumer trust perspective.

Chairing the event, Pradeep S. Mehta, Secretary General of CUTS International, said: “The exponential growth in the online market space has thrown new and complex regulatory challenges to the government in general and the CCI in particular.”

Mehta highlighted the role of transparency and democracy in policies and conducts of dominant players in online markets. Continued growth, Mehta felt, of the online market, will depend on a reasoned regulatory response.

Presenting the findings of the study, Dr. Navneet Sharma, Director of the CUTS Institute of Regulation and Competition, said: “The unattended issues emanating from the online markets, which affect consumers and SMEs alike, required primary research. This survey is a product of this demand.”

“The effects of the market conducts in the online space are yet to be understood on account of the complexities in the online ecosystem,” said A.K. Chauhan, Director-General of the Competition Commission of India (CCI), releasing the survey report at a seminar here on Friday. “The determination of the relevant

market, both product and geographical, along with assessment of a dominant position, would require very sophisticated analysis. The findings of the pioneering survey will provide useful insights.”

Speaking at the event, founder and CEO of UK-based OneNewsPage.com, Dr. Marc Pinter-Krainer, shared his experiences about the evolution and monetisation of search results over the past 10 years. Corroborating the findings of the study, Dr. Pinter-Krainer said: “Over the past 10 years, a significant rift has formed between what consumers perceive about what they see in search results and what is actually displayed to them.

Particularly on Google, relevant organic search results are being increasingly replaced by advertisements and Google’s own services – often without the user realising it. There is an urgent need for greater transparency.”
Director-General (Policy) and Chief Economist of Nasscom, Anupam Khanna, underlined the importance of networks in online markets.

“The purpose of regulation in a multi-sided market requires thorough considerations on parameters such as market failures, consumer protection, tax and fiscal reasons etc,” Khanna said. (Global India Newswire)

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