Search engine users are "like kids with a fancy new toy" according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project which found that just one in six users will spot the difference between paid and unpaid search results.
Pew's survey, published Sunday, shows that internet users are generally very happy with search engines and their ability to use them, but are strikingly unaware of how search engines operate and how they present their results.
"In a sense, many search engine users are a little bit like kids with a fancy new toy: They want to go play with it immediately and have a good time, but most don't want to read the instructions or much care to know how it works," said Deborah Fallows, Senior Research Fellow at the Project and author of the report.
According to the survey findings, internet users behave conservatively as searchers, tending to settle quickly on a single search engine and then sticking with it, rather than switching as search technology evolves or comparing results from different search systems.
Some 44% of searchers regularly use just one engine, and another 48% use just two or three, the Project found.
But while internet users trust their favourite search engines, few are actually aware of the financial incentives that affect how search engines perform and how they present their search results.
Only 38% of users are aware of the distinction between paid or 'sponsored' results and unpaid results. And only one in six say they can always tell which results are paid or sponsored and which are not. Yet nearly half of all users say they would stop using search engines if they thought engines were not being clear about how they presented paid results.
A full half of internet searchers say that while they like search engines, they could return to other ways of finding information. Another 17% say they wouldn't miss them at all. About one third of internet searchers, 32%, say they can't live without search engines.
According to the report, they are a different breed of searcher â€“ a more high-powered group who work the engines harder and more seriously. They are more likely to be: male, young, better educated, of higher income, and to have been on-line for more years than others.
"This odd situation, in which a growing population of users relies on technology most of them don't understand, highlights the responsibility placed on search engine companies," says the report. "They are businesses, in many cases extremely successful ones â€“ but their effects on society are far more than merely commercial."
The report concludes:
"One unexpected implication of our study is that search engines are attaining the status of other institutions â€“ legal, medical, educational, governmental, journalistic â€“ whose performance the public judges by unusually high standards, because the public is unusually reliant on them for principled performance."