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The majority of search engine users are unaware of the distinction between paid and unpaid results, yet more than half of the users say they are very confident about their searching abilities, a research firm said Monday.
A nationwide survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that only 38 percent of search-engine users were aware of the distinction between "sponsored," or paid, links and unpaid results. In addition, only 1 in 6 said they could always tell which results were paid and which were not.
At the same time, 92 percent of the respondents were confident about their searching abilities, with over half of them, 52 percent, saying they were "very confident."
The reason for the contrast seems linked to the ability of Internet search engines, which include major players Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., America Online Inc., and Microsoft Corp., to satisfy novices and experts alike.
The majority of consumers search in areas easily handled by today's search engines, so the results are usually on target. For example, Google listed singer Britney Spears as the top query of 2004, AOL listed "horoscopes," and Yahoo listed the TV show "American Idol."
"If you're doing elementary searches, then it's pretty difficult to fail," Deborah Fallows, senior research fellow at Pew, said.
On the other hand, people more experienced with the Internet and search engines, know how to use the tools' advanced features in order to find results for more complex queries.
"Search engines are able to make everybody happy," Fallows said.
Pew found that 87 percent of online searchers have successful search experiences most of the time, including 17 percent who said they always find the information for which they are looking.
The lack of search-engine knowledge, however, could be a problem, if one assumes that it's better to know the distinction, for example, between newspaper advertising and a news story, or a TV news program and infomercial, Fallows said.
"Search engines need to make these distinctions as clear as they can, and search-engine users need to become more savvy about the tools they are using and the information they are getting," Fallows said.
In other findings from the Pew study:
-- 68 percent of searchers said that search engines are a fair and unbiased source of information, and 19 percent said they don't place that trust in search engines;
-- 47 percent of the respondents would use a search engine no more than once or twice a week, and 35 percent would use a search engine at least once a day;
-- 55 percent of the respondents said about half the information they search for is trivial, and half is important to them;
--And 44 percent of searchers said they regularly used a single search engine, 48 percent would use just two or three, and 7 percent more than three.