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A Click in Time Saves Minds

The cyber-brawl over Scientology spreads to search engines.

Jim Olson, GoTo's vice president of corporate communications, says the company's rapid growth is a sign of its effectiveness. "When an advertiser submits a search listing request, it goes through a pretty strict relevancy screening of eighty editors here," he says. "It's sort of like the yellow pages. The advertisers who can afford to reach the most customers are often in the best position to service that customer need."

When FACTNet first started using GoTo, the results were "incredibly cost-effective," Wollersheim says. By bidding ten cents a click, the site could appear in the top three listings on America Online and attract thousands of new viewers while spending only $500 to $700 a month for the service. "Many of the individuals searching Scientology keywords are new members or they are checking Scientology out before they get involved," he adds. "This is powerfully preemptive, preventive and inoculative education at its best."

But then various pro-Scientology sites began to outbid FACTNet for the top spot, sending its link deeper and deeper into the ranks, where it wouldn't appear in search results on many of GoTo's affiliates. FACTNet's link, now bid at five cents per click, recently has been showing up 35th in Scientology keyword searches -- below 34 pro-church sites. Wollersheim claims that CSI has created "fake" Web pages, controlled by church Webmasters, to bury his site and that Scientologists have been clicking on his link repeatedly simply to drive his advertising costs up.

Weiland denies that the church has done anything improper. GoTo's own safeguards prevent the kind of click abuse Wollersheim describes, she responds, and the numerous Web sites put up by the church and individual members reflect the widespread interest in the organization. "This is simply how life on GoTo works, and it works the same for everybody," she adds.

Weiland has her own complaints about Wollersheim, of course, including broadsides about his alleged "diet and exercise scams, selling bad meat and cheesy laser prints" and other accusations that CSI has made against him for years. (Wollersheim claims the church has concocted various slanders in an effort to discredit him.) But it's also true that many of the pro-Scientology sites featured on GoTo, while seemingly separate entities, are closely linked in some fashion to the CSI home page at scientology.org.

GoTo's Olson says that FACTNet should take its complaints to his relevancy team. "We do want to look into this," he says. "We have a policy that prohibits a single advertiser having multiple listings under a single keyword."

If Scientology is flooding the search engine with church-operated sites, it wouldn't be the first time that Hubbard's followers have sought to counter their critics in cyberspace. A critical newsgroup, alt.religion.scientology, has been subject to periodic waves of pro-Scientology spamming, and anonymous operatives developed a "Cancelbunny" program that attempted to cancel critical postings from other users a few years ago. Yet it's difficult to see the latest round as "techno-censorship," since it's still easy to find anti-Scientology sites on traditional search engines.

A recent search on Google, the most popular engine on the Web, turned up three well-trafficked critical sites, including FACTNet, in the first ten results. Yahoo lists forty sites under its subdirectory for "Scientology: Opposing Views." But even these searches are influenced to some degree by the rankings in other search engines, as well as by optimizing programs Webmasters use to try to get better placement in particular keyword search results.

"What people need to understand is that results are being commercially influenced across the board right now," says Olson. "With advertising declining these days, search engines are looking for alternative revenue sources. At some level, all search results are commercially influenced."

The growing pay-per-click influence troubles Michael Lenzini, a professor of information technology and electronic commerce at the University of Denver. "It's not illegal, but it's my personal opinion that it's unethical," he says. "If consumers think the results are totally skewed to the highest bidder, they'll stop using that search engine. But right now, consumers have very little say-so in how that's done."

As for Wollersheim's complaint, "I don't think it's censorship," Lenzini says. "It's an organization that has a lot more bucks using that money to bury them. But if Scientology is controlling a massive number of sites and they're paying to have those results appear higher, that's skewing the results."

In impassioned, lengthy e-mails, Wollersheim has been urging other anti-Scientology groups to get their own sites listed prominently on pay-per-click engines and to devise other strategies for dealing with the issue. At the same time, he's pleading with the church's critics to refrain from retaliating by, say, clicking repeatedly on the pro-Scientology sites in an effort to drain their funds.

That would be pointless, Wollersheim figures, because Scientology has a lot of funds. And the last thing anyone wants is an escalation of the click war.

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