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People are so addicted to free content, including free (to them) search-engine results that they often to fail to notice that somebody has paid for that content. And that somebody (merchants, legit and otherwise, and the search engines that are “common carriers” for such results) obviously has a vested interest in downplaying the bias inherent in this free-to-the-browser sponsored content.
But this is a minor issue. The search engines specialize in scouring the Internet for relevant material, sponsored and otherwise. Users/browsers, if they’re so inclined and diligent, can easily dig further for non-sponsored content surfaced through the same keywords that delivered the sponsored stuff. The lazy/naive users will be hooked by sponsored content. Their hipper, more diligent counterparts will surface the biased and impartial stuff, and weight/handicap them accordingly in their minds.
In a very real sense, all content is “paid.” Some of it’s paid promotional material, but the rest is “paid” for by the author (from their own pockets, with their own blood sweat and tears) and put out on the cybersphere at their own expense (of time, if nothing else). And everything is biased. You just need to be alert to the author/sponsor’s particular bias, perspective, or agenda. Even "unbiased" analyst ponderings are geared to selling something: selling the (licensed document subscription, dialogue, consulting, webinar, conference, etc.) services of that analyst (individually and/or the firm he/she works for) to the IT (enterprise and/or vendor) community. When you read an analyst report, you should always wonder who's paying the analyst to produce that report (it needn't be direct tit-for-tat money-for-sponsored-report payment; more often, it's simply indirect "big vendor will not renew license for analyst subscription service unless analyst says more nice things about vendor" pressure). You definitely need to be hip to that dynamic operating throughout the IT research/analyst market segment.
Sponsorship in the IT whitepaper world--it's a reality in the online whitepaper ecosystem. But this sort of bias is not fundamentally different from what you'll find in any other publishing medium, online or otherwise. Somebody has to find it worth their while to produce such stuff. Actually, I think Google does a good job of surfacing the “sponsored links” high up in their search results. And I think a lot of sponsored research is top-notch. Smart people were paid decent money to produce something of value. The good sponsored research is in fact research—it should tell you something you didn’t already know. The transparently self-serving vacuous marketing/promotional whitepapers are easily identified and ignored.
Of course, I spend my working hours consuming (and occasionally producing) such whitepapers, as well as promulgating my “unbiased” (yeah, Jim, you’re a philosopher-king sitting on Mount Olympus) thoughts via this blog, my Network World column, and other channels. So I’m relatively “hip” to this phenomenon. Maybe others aren’t as tuned into this stuff as I am.
For the record, you should browse my blog, columns, and published reports for my collective “bias”—I like to think of it as “perspective”—on all things IT and otherwise. If you’re comfortable and aligned with my bias, please keep tuning in. If you’re not, then you’re not reading this now, most likely, so this here final sentence is moot, I suppose.