A Click in Time Saves Minds

The cyber-brawl over Scientology spreads to search engines.

Go to GoTo.com, an Internet search engine that provides "sponsored" search results for America Online, Lycos, AltaVista and many other World Wide Web heavyweights. Type in "Scientology," and you'll get dozens of hits linking you to sites devoted to the Church of Scientology International.

This is what you'll find most prominently listed: Reports on how church members are organizing blood drives and food banks in the wake of the terrorist attack on New York City. Testimonials from celebrity Scientologists, including Juliette Lewis and Isaac Hayes. Sites that explain how Scientology gets people off drugs and supports religious freedom.

This is what you won't find, unless you scroll through several pages of pro-Scientology links: "SCIENTOLOGY DIRTY SECRETS. Before you get taken in by any of Scientology's claims, check out the largest free archive on the real Scientology -- the Scientology they don't want you to know about. www.factnet.org."

According to Lawrence Wollersheim, a founder of the Fight Against Coercive Tactics Network, FACTNet has been consigned to a peculiar kind of Internet hell by a "search engine sabotaging tactic" employed by the Church of Scientology. The Boulder-based nonprofit Web site -- which features an archive of information about CSI and other "new religions" that FACTNet regards as dangerous cults -- has seen its ranking in GoTo search results drop precipitously in recent months, buried by pro-Scientology sites that bid higher for favored placement, an arrangement known as "pay-per-click."

Few search-engine users scroll past the first page of listings, and some of GoTo's partners, such as America Online, feature only the top three "sponsored" links. As a consequence, FACTNet's message ends up in "search engine nowhere," Wollersheim charges. "[The church] started doing this when they could not keep us from being seen in the top listings. This is techno-censorship. It's also a fair-trade nightmare if other unscrupulous businesses copy Scientology's tactics."

But CSI spokeswoman Janet Weiland says that church-affiliated Web sites are merely outbidding FACTNet in the electronic marketplace. "Mr. Wollersheim seems to object that Scientology is popular on the Internet," she says. "He would prefer it if, when people searched for Scientology, they did not find anything except his anti-religious invective. But the church and its members have a right to communicate and to use public services like GoTo just like everybody else."

At first glance, the dispute between FACTNet and Scientology seems to be a simple matter of a larger advertiser out-shouting a smaller one. But the combatants have battled before over thorny questions of free speech on the Internet, and the current quandary illustrates how the commercialization of cyberspace is reshaping what users find there. It also shows how search engines are changing from objective directories of information, similar to an old-fashioned library card catalogue, to a kind of yellow pages, in which the biggest peddlers of products, services and ideas command the most attention.

Wollersheim's disagreements with his former religion stretch back more than twenty years. In 1980 he sued CSI's California operation, claiming the group used coercive methods to keep him in the fold and harassed him after he left. In 1986 a jury awarded him $30 million in damages, reduced to $2.5 million on appeal; he's still trying to collect.

In 1995, church officials obtained federal search warrants and seized computers and documents from the homes of Wollersheim and two other FACTNet boardmembers, charging that the group had violated the copyright of CSI's "trade secrets" by posting on the Internet closely guarded writings of L. Ron Hubbard, the science-fiction writer (and author of Dianetics) who founded Scientology in the 1950s ("Nightmare on the Net," March 6, 1997). The ponderous litigation that followed cost FACTNet's insurance carriers $2 million in legal fees and dragged on in Denver's federal court for almost four years; in a settlement deal reached in 1999, FACTNet agreed to return thousands of unpublished documents and not to infringe on the church's copyrights.

Despite the church's well-publicized efforts to silence its critics, FACTNet continues to crusade against CSI on its Web site. And until recently, Wollersheim thought he'd found the perfect tool for reaching new donors and educating the public about what he considers to be the dangers of Scientology: the GoTo search engine.

Launched in 1998, GoTo is now the dominant player among pay-per-click engines. Unlike other search services, which use a combination of Web-crawling software and human editors to rank search results primarily in terms of relevancy to submitted keywords, the pay-per-click technology allows advertisers to bid for placement among relevant search results -- and only pay when a consumer actually clicks on their entry. For example, a custom surfboard designer who pays ten cents a click might be placed tenth in the results for "surfboards," while a large retailer might get the top spot by paying fifty cents a click.

Many analysts were skeptical of GoTo's prospects when it first announced its pay-per-click plan, figuring that consumers couldn't trust the results. But the service now claims 45,000 advertisers and 62.5 million users. Most of the usage comes not out of GoTo's own site, but through its numerous partnerships with portals such as America Online and even other search engines that "feature" GoTo's top picks for a given search and share in the resulting revenues.

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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