- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 14, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Internet search engine Snap.com is hoping to expand its sparse audience by making Web surfing more like channel surfing on a television, but the startup might attract more attention with another change that further blurs the lines separating ads from listings retrieved by objective formulas.

Under a format to be introduced today, Snap will lump together search results financed by advertisers in the same column as Web links drawn from algorithms programmed to disregard financial incentives and find the most relevant response to a user’s request.

As an example of how Snap’s approach might blend results, a response to “used cars” might rank a result bought by Carsmart.com directly above a noncommercial link to Usedcars.com.

That combination is a departure from leading Internet search engines such as Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp.’s MSN, which isolate advertising results in shaded boxes at the top of the page or group them together in a separate stack to the right under the heading “sponsored results.”

The distinctions are meant to comply with Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidelines urging that Internet search engines provide “clear and conspicuous” distinctions separating their noncommercial results from ad-driven links.

Snap, started in late 2004, is putting a light gray “sponsored result” disclaimer next to the Web addresses of all the ads that crop up.

The label isn’t prominent enough to satisfy Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a Ralph Nader-based watchdog group behind a 2001 complaint that prompted the FTC to issue its search-engine advertising guidelines.

Snap’s new system for identifying ads “is neither clear nor conspicuous,” Mr. Ruskin said. “It is completely inadequate.”

Pasadena-based Snap says its new approach makes sense because the Web sites run by advertisers sometimes provide the information or merchandise most likely to satisfy a user’s search request.

“For very commercial searches, you will see all commercial results,” said Tom McGovern, Snap’s chief executive. “We are not trying to mislead anybody.”

By combining commercial and noncommercial results in the same column, Snap cleared enough space on its home page to provide a large enough box that will provide snapshots of each Web site that appears in the rankings.

These glimpses change as a user scrolls through the results with a computer’s up-and-down keys, similar to a couch potato flipping through television channels with a remote control. The technique is designed to minimize the use of a Web browser’s “back” button to navigate back and forth between sites.

“It might take a few years for it to catch on, but we think we are establishing a new paradigm for search,” said Snap co-founder Bill Gross, who has reshaped the industry once before.

During the 1990s, Mr. Gross invented the first search engine that ranked search results based on how much advertisers were willing to pay for the privilege.

Skeptics initially scoffed at Mr. Gross’ idea, but the concept eventually morphed into a successful search engine, Overture, that Yahoo Inc. bought in 2003 for $1.8 billion. Overture also provided the inspiration for Google Inc.’s lucrative advertising network.

Snap, part of Perfect Technologies Inc., hasn’t had much of an effect. The search engine hasn’t attracted more than 700,000 unique visitors during any month in the past year, research firm Nielsen/NetRatings Inc. reports.

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