The good news is that over the past month, LookSmart has given site owners greater flexibility than ever before to get listed with the service. The changes are especially beneficial for those with non-commercial content. The bad news is that getting listed is now actually more complicated and will cost many commercial sites 50 percent more.
Go back about a year and a half ago, and the LookSmart submission process was simple. There was one submit form, for use by either commercial or non-commercial web sites, and no fee was required.
Fast-forward to today, and you're swamped by options. Non-commercial? You can now submit via LookSmart-owned Zeal.com for free. Commercial? You've got a choice between "Basic Submit," "Express Submit" or "LookListings" -- and non-commercial sites can also use these, if they can afford the fees. Need to change your listing? A new "Express Modify" service introduced last month will do that quickly, for a price.
To understand which system to use, we'll take a closer look at each one, starting with Zeal and how changes there should be a real benefit to non-commercial web sites.
New Zeal For Non-Commercial Sites
Zeal is a volunteer-built directory of the web similar to the Open Directory that LookSmart purchased last September. In mid-July, the Zeal and LookSmart databases were combined into a new, unified directory. This new directory will now be used for all LookSmart results, whether those results appear at Zeal, LookSmart.com or one of LookSmart's partners.
For non-commercial sites, this means that if you get listed with Zeal.com, you'll then find your listings appearing in places such as MSN Search or the category results at Excite, since these are powered by LookSmart. This is a real plus, because anyone can sign up at Zeal to contribute a site.
Of course, you will need to pass a short Zeal Member quiz before you can contribute. This ensures that you understand how to write descriptions and categorize web sites according to official guidelines.
"It's kind of like a driver's examination. Once you pass that quiz, we feel comfortable that you will have the basic knowledge to add a new web site into the directory," said Kevin Krim, director of product management at LookSmart.
It would be nice (and easier) for site owners if anyone could submit a site for Zeal editors to review, without having to first pass a test on issues they'll never face, because they don't intend to be part of the Zeal editing community. Nevertheless, making people pass the test to submit does ensure that the volunteers aren't overwhelmed by spam and that submissions are written in a manner to be processed quickly.
Submissions aren't added instantly by Zeal "contributors," the status given to brand new members who pass the Zeal quiz. Instead, another higher level Zeal member or LookSmart editor will review the submission and approve it, usually within about a day. Those who earn enough Zeal points can become the "Zealot" of a category that they're interested in, with the ability to do instant adds and other basic category management activities. "Expert Zealots" have earned the privilege through the quantity and quality of their work to manage entire categories.
New sites will show up on Zeal as soon as they're approved, generally within a day or less. It can take up to a week before they show up at LookSmart.com and even longer for them to show up at LookSmart partners, depending on how often they update their databases. However, you should expect to find your new site live with LookSmart partners within a month or so.
No Zeal members, regardless of their level, can add sites to designated "commercial" categories, which are clearly marked and make up about 30 to 40 percent of the directory. If you try, the system is supposed to prevent the submission. Instead, it is only LookSmart's professional editors who should be adding listings to commercial categories. In addition, only LookSmart editors can interact with the "paid" listings in the directory that come through its Basic Submit, Express Submit and LookListings programs, which are described more below.
How about the non-commercial categories? Can commercial sites reside in these? Yes, within limits. The Zeal guidelines below explain situations where it might be appropriate to list commercial content in Zeal's non-commercial areas.
Don't worry, those of you with hobbyist sites, your affiliate links or banner ads aren't going to prevent you from being listed, assuming that your site offers some original content rather than just being a collection of banners.
In short, the merger should be a boon for non-commercial and hobbyist sites who want to be within LookSmart-powered results. Zeal promises a fast and easy way for you to submit. As for commercial sites, don't view Zeal as a way to get listed for free. You'll still need to use the paid submission options to obtain your basic listings within commercial categories.
Zeal's Open Window Into LookSmart
One of the things I love about Zeal is that it makes it very easy to discover whether a listing was paid for or not. For example, if you go to this category:
SciFi/Horror Movie Sales Category
you can then select the small "Manage" link near the top of the page. This provides details about the listings, available to anyone, not just Zeal members. You'll see that all the paid listings are flagged with a small purple icon, while those which are unpaid have a slash through the box.
Sadly, this type of transparency isn't offered at LookSmart itself, nor other major search engines that mix editorially-derived and paid listings. It would be nice to see. There's no reason why each listing couldn't be followed by a small dollar sign or other icon to indicate that it has a paid component. That could go a long way toward reassuring those who are afraid that their "regular" listings are being too dominated by paid inclusion listings. You could simply review the results, and if you saw all dollar signs, you'd have a better idea that no editorial picks were showing up.
In addition, you could also have icons to show if a site was considered a top pick by editors. In this way, even if a site was a paid listing, you'd also know that editors independently liked it.
Merging Zeal and LookSmart has not been without its problems. Active and former Zeal members, of which there are about 1,200, discovered last week that credit for all their past work was lost, only to be regained after they passed the new Zeal quiz and performed some editing activity. Some were not happy about this, nor were they pleased to discover that they could no longer work within commercial areas of Zeal. Grumblings, along with some defenders, can be found within the Zeal message area, below.
Sites added to Zeal between November 2000 and mid-July, 2001 have not yet been integrated into the new directory. LookSmart says that they will be imported and available in a special branch of the directory within a couple of weeks.
All existing members should have received a message from Zeal telling them about the changes and inviting them to revisit the service, if their activity had lapsed. Of course, new members are also being added. So if you like the idea of contributing to a directory, Zeal is a revived option you might consider.
So far, what's been covered is mainly for the benefit of those with non-commercial content. For many who are running commercially-oriented web sites, LookSmart's paid submission programs will be the way to get in. These are also the programs that had their fees raised 50 percent on August 1.
The "Express Submit" program promises to review any web site submitted and provide a yes or no answer within 2 days, as to whether it will be listed. The price is now $299, up from $199. "Basic Submit" is exactly like Express Submit, except that you must wait up to 8 weeks before getting an answer. For your patience, you pay less. The price is $149, up from $99.
"We've improved the service in a variety of ways since our launch over one and a half years ago, and we feel these prices reflect the tremendous value we pass on to customers that get listed in the LookSmart Network via Express," said spokesperson Kathryn Shantz, of the price hikes.
There's really only one major "improvement" that's happened, LookSmart's greater reach than when the paid submission programs first launched.
"LookSmart has added numerous new partners to the network including InfoSpace, Road Runner, Prodigy, Juno and Inktomi's search network. As a result, LookSmart now ranks number one in network reach according to Jupiter Media Metrix," Shantz said.
The company has indeed added new partners that carry its listings, but its reach hasn't gone up to the degree that its submission prices have. In January 2000, when the Express Submit program was first launched, LookSmart was claiming that its service reached nearly 70 percent of all Internet users in the United States. According to the most recent Media Metrix numbers, that reach is now 77 percent, a 10 percent rise.
The major LookSmart partner remains MSN Search, and the sheer amount of traffic that service receives makes paying the higher rates at LookSmart still worthwhile. This is despite fact that some other major partners have downplayed the positioning of LookSmart's results recently, such as AltaVista and iWon. Overall, even at $299, most site owners will probably find the fee pays for itself in quality traffic within a few months, if not weeks. For commercial sites, paying to get listed with LookSmart is not an option, it's a must-do action.
Should you choose the cheaper Basic Submit option? Sure, if money is a big issue and time is no worry. The sad thing here is that the idea of Basic Submit as the "budget" option for small commercial sites has essentially been killed by the latest change.
Since it launched, Express Submit has always been $199 until the most recent change, except for one week of price testing when it was upped to $299 last July. In contrast, Basic Submit has constantly been pushed higher. It started at $49 when formally introduced last June, then increased it to $79 in September, then upped it to $99 in December. Each time, the increases were blamed on the need to share more money with LookSmart's partners.
Perhaps a solution for small site owners would be to have a lower fee not based on how long you'll wait but on how long you'll be listed. Maybe for a lower fee, such as $49 or $79, a site would be listed for one year. That might be easier for some site owners to swallow. Meanwhile, those willing to pay more up-front would get essentially the lifetime listing they have now.
The nice thing about this is that you could have a single submission form and program, but you'd choose the price you want to pay for the corresponding period of time. Of course, the big worry is that LookSmart (and perhaps Yahoo) might decide that ALL listings ought to pay a yearly renewal fee. That wouldn't be a wise move to make, because there would be a guaranteed outcry. It would also raise some legal issues as to whether you could apply this to sites retroactively.
LookSmart has broken new ground with its recent introduction of a paid modification service. This is designed to allow those who want to change a site's description or to get listed in different categories the opportunity to make such changes. It is especially aimed at those people who have been listed in the directory for years and who've had no good option to request such alternations.
"We're very excited about this, because it is basically giving us a chance to serve the two customer service requests we get, that I'd like to update my site description and that I'd like to be added to an additional category in the directory," said Jennifer Schindler, who oversees the submit and modify programs.
Changing a description is $199 and adding a new category to your listing is $149. There's no guarantee that the exact modifications you want will be done, but if they are reasonable and appropriate, you shouldn't have any problems. The turnaround time on yes or no answers to modifications is five business days. Also, unlike the submit options, there is no appeal process if requested changes are rejected.
Finally, in a somewhat odd move, you can't use the program to tell LookSmart to change your URL. Instead, they insist that you pay for an entirely new submission, when that happens. LookSmart says this is because URL requests usually mean that a site has significantly changed and thus requires a rereview
Last month, I wrote that LookSmart was transforming its former "Subsites" paid inclusion program into a new program called LookListings. That program is now fully live.
In the program, LookSmart will do a deep categorization of a web site, in return for a per click charge of generally between 15 to 75 cents for every visitor that they send to you, with those in more competitive markets paying higher fees. The program has a $1,000 minimum spend per month, with a three month minimum, so this isn't aimed at small business looking to boost traffic by perhaps spending a little on their credit card, the way you can with someone like GoTo.
In addition to having deeper representation, LookSmart will now also give all your listings a ranking boost, a significant change than from its old program. This only happens within LookSmart.com and sites that rebrand LookSmart's exact listings. No boost is supposed to be happening at places like AltaVista, Excite, MSN Search or iWon, to my understanding.
LookListings also contains a pure paid placement element, for those who want guaranteed placement. For an fee, you can request that your site appear at the top of LookSmart's results, in the "Featured Listings" section, in response to particular queries. Unlike GoTo, an auction model is not used, so you have more assurances of staying in the top results for an agreed period of time.
As an added bonus, anyone in the LookListings program has a shot at appearing in the Featured Listings section, if no one has explicitly requested to appear there for particular queries.
More Choice, More Decisions
So there you have it, "lotsa" choices for getting into LookSmart, as my two-year old son might say. The integration of Zeal should be good news for all those non-commercial sites who've been feeling left out in the rush by search engines to add paid participation programs, while the Zeal listings also ought to go a long way toward counter-balancing the commercial slant that LookSmart has embarked upon in the past months.
As for the Express Modify service, that will no doubt help those who've needed a fast way to make changes, and it's something many, many people would like to see Yahoo offer.
There's nothing exciting about the price hikes LookSmart's charging for its regular submit programs, but realistically, the money spent on them will likely go a lot further than the same amount spent with GoTo. Spending to have a basic listing with LookSmart is still well-worth the price.
As for LookListings, it certainly offers some advantages to advertisers and may be more economical for some than using more typical paid listings services such as GoTo, though in other cases, GoTo might come out on top. The main disadvantage is to users. Do a search for "star wars" over at LookSmart and watch how eBay's LookListings entries dominate the results, no doubt do to the ranking boost they get.
Paid inclusion was originally pitched by LookSmart as a way to earn revenue without compromise their listings quality, but the ranking boost has definitely done that, in this case of the search above and others. Compare LookSmart's results to the results for "star wars" from MSN Search. Though MSN Search uses LookSmart's listings, they do not apply the ranking boosts that LookSmart assigns. As a result, you get a much better set of results.
Ultimately, if LookSmart wants to play in the paid placement arena, then it should sell placement only within its Featured Listings area (and, preferably, change the name of this section). Doing so would reduce possible criticism of its paid inclusion program, which without the ranking boost, can offer advantages to both users and site owners.
Zeal User Guidelines
Tips on how to contribute to Zeal can be found here.
Zeal User Guidelines: Commercial Content
Explains what "commercial" content is considered to be and where it is allowed within the directory.
Were you a Zeal member before the recent changes? This page explains what has changed.
Some Zeal members aren't happy with the recent changes, and they vent within the message boards found here. Others defend the changes.
Options for Basic & Express Submit are here, along with Express Modify.
More about the LookListings program can be found here.
Search Engine LookSmart Turns LookListings into Cash Engine
eMarketer, June 2001
Wide-ranging interview with LookSmart vice president of marketing, Dakota Sullivan, focusing especially on its business aspects and how listings are a "downstream" or narrowband type of advertising, for some sites. Also stats that of LookSmart's 2.5 million listings in the directory, less than 2 percent are said to be paid.
Shootout Brewing Between Paid Search Engines
InternetNews.com, June 25, 2001
Covers how LookSmart is using LookListings to position itself against GoTo.
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