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What's the Latest with Search Engines
Part. II

(...continued from last month)

by Gary J. Wolff

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 spokesman said.

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 advertisers.

"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


© Algorithmica Japonica Copyright Notice: Copyright of material rests with the individual author. Articles may be reprinted by other user groups if the author and original publication are credited. Any other reproduction or use of material herein is prohibited without prior written permission from TPC. The mention of names of products without indication of Trademark or Registered Trademark status in no way implies that these products are not so protected by law.

Algorithmica Japonica

January, 2002

The Newsletter of the Tokyo PC Users Group

Submissions : Editor


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