(...continued from last month)
What's the Latest with Search Engines
ANTHRAX SCARE CAUSES SOME SEARCH SERVICES TO RETHINK WEB RESULTS FOR CIPRO SEEKERS
Some search sites are reconsidering how they will handle searches for Cipro in the wake of the Food and
Drug Administration's decision to crack down on illegal Internet sales of the popular anthrax drug.
The zooming public interest in the drug, coupled with a lack of clear-cut industry-wide standards on
providing paid or free links to Web sites, has left each site scrambling to formulate a policy on Cipro
searches. Some are blocking ads for stores selling Cipro without prescriptions, while others are
adopting a wait-and-see policy.
For example, a search for Cipro on FindWhat Inc. (www.findwhat.com), a pay-per-click search engine that
provides searches to CNET Networks and Excite, among others, brings up over 50 links to online stores
selling Cipro, including one non-U.S. site that promises "no prescription or fees."
But conduct the same search on TerraLycos SA's Lycos.com, and the results return links primarily to
health and reference sites, along with a few to pharmacies advertising Cipro--but only for customers
with a prescription.
"There are obvious issues about editorial integrity," for Web portals that accept advertising from
Cipro stores, said Patrick Keane, senior analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix, noting that Yahoo and other
search sites have struggled for years to come up with a consistent policy regarding linking to or
accepting ads from controversial sites, such as pornography Web pages.
In the days since the first case of anthrax was diagnosed in Florida, interest in Ciproflaxcin, or
Cipro, has soared. In mid-October, "Cipro" was the third most popular query on Google, with "anthrax"
taking the top position. Searches for Cipro on Drugstore.com Inc. (www.drugstore.com), an online pharmacy accredited by the
Association of Pharmacy Boards, jumped 2,000% in only two weeks.
Sites that offer Cipro without a doctor's prescription, or through online consultations with an on-
staff doctor, are probably unethical, but aren't necessarily illegal depending on which state they do
business in, according to Holly Vance, chief pharmacist at Drugstore.com. (Drugstore.com will fill
Cipro orders if a doctor faxes over the prescription.)
Most sites allow advertisers to place ads on results pages for specific keyword searches, and it is
these ads that often link to Cipro stores. Now that the FDA is cracking down on Cipro sellers, sites
are rethinking the pay-for-placement links, in some cases.
Lycos has asked one of its search partners, Overture Inc. (www.overture.com), to block search results for Cipro or anthrax
that include "featured," or paid-for, links to sites that sell the drug without a prescription. Lycos
declined to specify why it took the action, or whether it has ever blocked other keyword search
results. "We reviewed the circumstances and took what we deemed the appropriate action," a company
FindWhat, which provides results on its own site as well as on Excite and CNET, has no plans to filter
results to block Cipro sellers, according to Craig Pisaris-Henderson, chief executive officer and
president. Although FindWhat does have some guidelines--it wouldn't sell an ad for a keyword related to
narcotics or child pornography, he says--by and large, the company doesn't check the background of its
"It's up to the consumers to make sure that it's a reliable entity," he said, noting that the health-
care searches--and associated revenue--is a "pretty large" portion of FindWhat's business. "For us to
make any representation that we go to each site and verify their business--that's not what we do.
That's for the Better Business Bureau."
On Overture's site, queries for Cipro and anthrax still bring up ads for the drug. Overture, formerly
known as GoTo, relies almost entirely on keyword ads for its revenue, rather than the typical banner
ads found on most sites. The company says it won't take the listings down unless it is requested to do
so by the FDA or Federal Trade Commission. Overture will also block results served to partner sites
like Lycos if asked to do so, according to Tom Weedon, senior director of relevance for Overture.
"We rely on the experts, people like the FDA and the FTC to tell us, 'hey, these particular companies
are not okay,' " Mr. Weedon said. Although the company hasn't yet been contacted by either agency, it
has added Cipro and anthrax to a list of keywords that it approaches with "extreme caution," he said.
Like Overture, other sites say that while they rarely proactively block ads or links to offensive
content, they will take down offensive ads if requested.
Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Search, which is the default search engine for newer versions of its Internet
Explorer Web browser, also allows keyword ads, but a spokeswoman for the company was unsure whether
Microsoft was taking any such ads from Cipro stores. "Microsoft doesn't comment on the business
activities of other companies," she said. "When MSN receives notice of content that is believed to be
in violation of our code of conduct ... we take action in accordance with those policies."
Google, which provides search results, but not paid ads, to Yahoo Inc., AOL Time Warner Inc.'s AOL.com
portal, and other Web companies, says because of its large number of advertisers and largely automated
process of selling and posting ads, the company usually doesn't take ads or links down without a
specific request. "We do review ads," a spokeswoman said. "At times, it is a reactive process."
Other search sites that accept ads through their Web sites by credit card are probably in a similar
situation, according to Jupiter's Mr. Keane. "It is difficult to evaluate every deal that comes
through," he said.
The FDA said in mid-October that it would move to block illegal shipments of Cipro from overseas.
Public health experts have asked that people not hoard Cipro or take it without a doctor's
prescription, fearing shortages and increased resistance to other antibiotics. Cipro also carries the
risk of potentially serious side effects, and the FDA has said that some sites may be selling a fake
version of the drug.
The above was condensed and paraphrased from the following articles that appeared on the Wall Street
Journal website at wsj.com:
1) "Avoid Web Rage: How to Keep Your Web Searches Under Control" by Jeremy Wagstaff, Staff Reporter, Aug. 27, 2001
2) "New Web Search Tools Offer Useful Shortcuts, Nice Twists" by Thomas E. Weber, Staff Reporter, Oct. 1, 2001
3) "Some Search Services Rethink Web Results for Cipro Seekers" by Stephanie Miles, Oct. 24, 2001
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