An interesting piece of research appeared in the consumer press this week thanks to Associated Press. Metro (free newspaper in London) ran it (though failed to make it clear that it was about American internet users) and so did ABC news in the U.S.A.
The telephone-based study by the Pew Research Center was conducted between 14 May and 17 June last summer and published last weekend. It sampled 2,200 adults of which 1,399 were Internet users.
It shows that 62% of Internet users were unaware that search engines results can include paid-for listings, and as little as one in six users could distinguish between 'organic' listings and paid-for listings.
"The finding is ironic, says the report, since half of all users say they would stop using search engines if they thought they were not being clear about how they presented paid results"
The author of the report, Dr Deborah Fallows, said that people trusted search engines as much as government agencies, doctors and academics but were naïve about sponsored web listings.
According to the UK Internet Research company, Hitwise, at this time of year one in every five page visits by a UK surfer is to a travel website, and 38% of those visits are refered from search engines. And, although I can't find the stats I know that where roughly 12% of internet users have bought a travel component online, some 82% have used the Internet for researching purchases. In November Mintel said that 40% of people who independently book their holiday components, do so on the Internet.
If 50% of surfers really did stop using search engines because they discovered there were sponsored listings, completely independent directories like Dmoz and Travel-Lists (no paid-for listings or reviews) will be swamped!