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Paid-for-position blues

Let’s hope the FTC does something to curb deceptive practices. 01/07/18 ReleVents hed: Paid-for-position blues dek: Let’s hope the FTC does something to curb deceptive practices. By James Mathewson

Search engines. We need them. We hate them. They all claim to provide relevant results. But mostly, our searches are a trail-and-error affair in which there is the distinct feeling that we are missing the most pertinent information. The reason is, most portals don’t even index the lion’s share of the Internet. They ignore academic sites, personal sites (no matter how comprehensive), and minor publishers. And they only work with commercial sites for a fee. Plus, their search algorithms are rudimentary at best.

This leads to the real digital divide on the Internet. The haves are the sites that have the cash to get themselves listed on the major portals. The have-nots are those that do not have the money. We’re headed for an Internet in which 90 percent of the traffic visits the top 50 sites, and the rest of the Internet (99 percent of all the information available) is largely ignored.

In our case, few of our articles get listed high on the search charts because we don’t pay. We go through all the gyrations that the search vendors ask us to do (gateway pages and the like) and all these get us are listings on the second page of search results. When we try to work with some sites, such as Yahoo!, they tell us that they can’t list us at all unless we pay a $200 fee per listing. The fee does not even guarantee a particular placement, it’s merely a foot in the door.

It is my chief frustration, and the reason I have devoted my very limited spare time to developing a search engine that indexes all the Web, does not sell its soul for 20 pieces of silver, and is based on unique methods that actually get relevant results. Until this revolutionary search engine is developed (it’s a slow process given my day job), we are stuck with a Web in which information is valued not on its importance to society but on the depth of its publisher’s pockets.

So I was pleased to see a story on our site on Tuesday that describes a plea by a consumer group to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The gist of the plea is to investigate the search engines on their deceptive practices. The beef is roughly what I have explained above. Search engines claim that their searches are performed impartially and the results are based on some sound semantic algorithms, when in fact they are purely based on payment. My hope is that the FTC will expose these engines for what they are and explode the myth that information on the Web wants to be free.

James Mathewson is editorial director of ComputerUser magazine and

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