Ethical issues on content distribution to digital consumers via paid placement as opposed to website visibility in search engine results

04 Mar 2014

The objective of this research project was to investigate and report on the ethical issues surrounding digital content distribution via search engine results. For the purposes of this project the traditional definition of digital content distribution is widened to include search engine results. The large existing Internet user base has created an immense potential for financial gain through marketing. Many authors stated that there is strong commercial motivation for ensuring that web pages appear high up in search engine results. At the same time, recent developments in the search engine world have driven marketers to find alternative funding sources. Paid placement refers to a customer paying a fee to the search engine company to ensure that the website involved is guaranteed listings on customer screens. Paid inclusion is an alternative which only assures the paying client that the relevant website will be included in the database, but not necessarily that it will appear in the listings. The literature has also shown that a number of questionable methods exist to increase website ranking. Some technical ones include paid inclusion and meta rag usage. Methods with an ethical bearing include paid placement, the use of link farms, cloaking, keyword stuffing, and creation of doorway pages. The findings of a set of experimental searches have left the impression that all is ethically not well in terms of content delivery to the consumer. It seems that unsolicited propaganda could overshadow true and valuable content in some search engine result pages. It is also possible that some website owners are employing technically superior techniques to achieve high rankings in search engine results. In conclusion it is believed that the level of commercial competition for website ranking will probably increase. Payment for casual information searching is a potential development which could decrease user frustration by increasing information quality of Internet websites.