GoTo Redevelops, Reaches Out
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It's been a busy few months for GoTo.com. In addition to rolling out major changes to its site, GoTo has also been establishing new deals to distribute its results through other sites. The moves are designed to take GoTo from being only a paid placement search engine to a source of paid listings that powers other search engines. In turn, this raises issues about how paid results are disclosed at GoTo-powered services.
The basics of how GoTo operates haven't changed. From the home page, you can perform a search, then get back results similar to any other search engine. The key difference, of course, is that these results are bought and sold. GoTo remains the only major search engine to sell its main listings this way. Advertisers agree to pay GoTo an amount for each person that clicks on their link, and those who agree to pay the most get listed first, through an auction system.
In contrast, the new "Quick Hit" links that appear at the top of GoTo's search results are a significant change for the search engine, because they are the first real editorial content the service has provided. Quick Hits appear in response to queries involving popular brand or company names. For example, search for "microsoft," and a link that says "Quick Hit Result: The official site for microsoft" appears at the top of the page. Clicking on the link takes you straight to the Microsoft web site.
Until now, GoTo had been a pure Yellow Pages-style service. As with the Yellow Pages, those with the biggest ad budgets get the biggest ads -- or top listings, in GoTo's case. That's not necessarily a bad relevancy model for some types of searches, especially for products and services. The companies you want might be the same companies that can afford to spend on advertising. In fact, GoTo's paid placement results have outperformed some other major search engines in surveys performed by NPD.
Nevertheless, there are definitely times when you want editorial guidance, and Quick Hits is GoTo's way of providing some. They ensure that users seeking certain companies can find those companies, regardless placement was purchased.
In addition to Quick Hits, GoTo has been working to improve the relevancy of its paid results. But isn't "relevancy" at GoTo simply whoever pays the most? Yes, results continue to be bought and sold, but that doesn't mean anyone with money to spend is necessarily relevant for whatever they want. For example, imagine if you flipped to the Yellow Pages listings for video tape rentals only to find ads from businesses selling movie posters. Sure, some people who rent videos might also like to buy movie posters, but the overall usefulness of the listings is reduced by allowing such untargeted ads.
In a similar vein, GoTo has been examining new bids since March to ensure they are relevant to particular terms and rejecting them, if not. As with the addition of Quick Hits, the changes are designed to prevent the paid placement service from becoming a free-for-all.
"Toward the end of last year, we were able to catch our breath and take a look at how we were doing on the relevancy issue. We observed a couple of things. The brand name issue and the company name issue was real, and we were probably being too loose on relevancy," said Ted Meisel, GoTo's chief executive officer.
In particular, the latest move is against what GoTo calls "ubiquitous sites," those which on the surface seem broadly relevant for everything. eBay is a perfect example. The site potentially has items on anything. As such, eBay and other broad-interest sites like it have bid upon on a wide-range of terms. Unfortunately, ads for these sites may not lead users to most relevant content within the sites.
"We think [ubiquitous site links” can be valuable when you click on that link, you go to something relevant for that term," said GoTo chairman Jeffrey Brewer. "That's not so for folks that are dumping you on their home pages."
GoTo says hundreds of thousands of ubiquitous links have now been removed, in situations where they weren't seen as exceptionally relevant to their associated search terms. Nevertheless, it's still not hard to find examples of ubiquitous links that remain. For example, a search for "einstein" brings up a link to "Find Einstein On eBay." Clicking through brings you to the eBay home page, rather than directly to any relevant Einstein material.
Back in March, GoTo also unveiled a directory-style structure for perusing its listings. Selecting a topic doesn't bring up human-classified results. Instead, each topic simply passes along search terms when you select it.
For example, click on the computing "category" from the home page, and GoTo does a search for that word, exactly as if you had just searched on "computing" yourself. After performing a search, topic links also appear in the upper-left hand corner of the results page. For example, a search on "sports" brings up links to the "sports personalities" and "sports news" topics.
GoTo added the topical structure primarily to help users be more specific with their requests, which in turn allows its advertisers more opportunity to reach those users. "Consumers and advertisers were converging on the top of the hierarchy. The directory and related search allows us to help them meet on more targeted terms," said Brewer.
In other changes over the past few months, auction and shopping search options were added to the site. Both can be reached via tabs at the top of the home page. The shopping area is continuing to develop over the coming months, so I may revisit it in the future.
While GoTo has done work within its own site, the real push now is building out the distribution of its results through other sites. GoTo started this back in 1999, with an affiliate program that paid sites to put search boxes to GoTo on their pages. That expanded into a syndication system that allows sites to create their own search engines "powered" by GoTo's results.
This is an important shift. GoTo is no longer trying to drive traffic back to its own site. Instead, GoTo is happy to distribute its results to others. After all, no matter where GoTo's listings appear, it earns money on the clickthrough, and its affiliates and partners share in the revenue.
"The affiliate distribution channels have become the key drivers in bringing searches to advertisers," said Meisel. "Over 90 percent of [GoTo” traffic takes place at affiliate partner sites. The clickthroughs occur there. Not everyone comes to our site."
Over the past months, GoTo has announced a number of major distribution deals. Ask Jeeves now carries GoTo listings as one of the meta search choices that appear at the bottom of Ask Jeeves results page, in the "I have also found these sites through other search engines" section. GoTo results are also distributed through deals with meta search sites MetaCrawler.com, DogPile.com, Mamma.com and Search.com. CompuServe.com should also begin using GoTo results, in the near future.
(Note: In a deal announced just a day after this was written, paid listings from GoTo.com are also to be integrated into search results at AOL Search and Netscape Search. The results are not designed to replace existing listings at these services, which are powered primarily out of the Open Directory. Instead, they will be provided in addition to the Open Directory information).
A big concern about this distribution is that paid listings are now appearing in some main results areas without any attribution. It's arguable whether most of GoTo's own users even know its results are paid for, but at least GoTo has always labeled them in some way, currently through the "Cost to advertiser" link that follows each listing. That's not the case when GoTo's information is used elsewhere.
At Search.com, the "Search Partners" section at the top of the page is simply the first three results from GoTo, for whatever you searched on. They are flagged as coming from GoTo, but unless you know GoTo is a paid placement search engine, you have no idea that these listings are essentially ads.
Go2Net-owned MetaCrawler identifies the GoTo results it provides as coming from GoTo, but that doesn't tell the user that these are ads. The same is true for Mamma.com. However, at least the paid listings aren't at these services aren't given any ranking preference. In contrast, at Go2Net's other meta search site, DogPile, GoTo consistently appears in the top search results. Go2Net said this isn't being done for financial reasons.
"If GoTo was not producing highly relevant results, they would not be as prominently displayed, which is a testament to their search results," said Tasha Soudah, product manager of search for Go2Net.
A better example of a lack of labeling is at the GoHip.com site. The help pages describe the service as "a meta-search engine that brings back the top results from many other popular search engines." In reality, by default GoHip only queries paid placement search engines such as GoTo, FindWhat, RocketLinks and Kanoodle. Yes, it's meta search, but not as we traditionally know it. Meta ads would be more like it.
I don't have a problem with paid listings, as long as they don't replace more editorial-style material. The Ask Jeeves approach is a good compromise. Do a search there, and paid results appear along the right-hand side of the screen under the title of "Visit these sponsors." The editorial results appear on the left-side of the page. But what is a concern is when it becomes harder to distinguish what is the editorial area. Ask Jeeves provides another example here. While the bulk of its right-hand side information is editorial, sometimes links are there through deals with partners.
For example, in a search for "what should my blood pressure be?" the top answer comes from the OnHealth site, through an advertising deal with Ask Jeeves. Ask Jeeves says that the information is just as good as if they had made it an editorial pick, but nonetheless, the average user has no idea there's an ad component at play. One improvement might be a link from the search results page to the Ask Jeeves editorial guidelines, where disclosure that some listings have a paid component is noted.
GoTo says that its partners are supposed to identify its results in some way, such as by using the GoTo name. The assumption is that most users will recognize that GoTo is a paid placement search engine, and thus that's all the disclosure that is needed. I'd disagree with this, and GoTo's partners should consider making changes to better indicate that the GoTo listings they provide are ads.
GoTo hasn't completely abandoned building its own traffic. In July, it renewed a relationship to be positioned on the Netscape Net Search page, which complements an earlier agreement this year with Microsoft to be one of several search choices offered to Internet Explorer users. GoTo is also readying a launch in the United Kingdom, where a site is supposed to go live later this year.
Scientists Baffled by Strange GoTo Phenomenon
Traffick, Aug. 12, 2000
Andrew Goodman covers similar issues relating to the slippage of paid results out of GoTo and elsewhere online. He also stumbled across what appears to have been a test of integrating GoTo results into Netscape's own search results. Netscape said they couldn't comment on this further, at the moment. The mixture is no longer to be seen.
Ask Jeeves Adds New Ad Opportunities
InternetNews.com, June 12, 2000
More details about the ad-based links appearing in Ask Jeeves results, with a defense of it by the company.
Ask Jeeves to Feature Ticketmaster, CitySearch Content
InternetNews.com, Aug. 30, 2000
Another advertorial-style deal recently announced by Ask Jeeves.
Ask Jeeves Editorial Guidelines
The company makes disclosure that some listings have a paid basis here, but most users probably won't find this page easily.
Paid Listing Search Engines
Other major sites like GoTo that allow for paid placement.
Pay For Placement?
Collection of past articles on the topic of paid placements at search engines.
NPD Search and Portal Site Study
Details on how GoTo ranks against some other search engines can be found here.
At GoTo.com, Trying to Shed the Portal Baggage
The Street, Aug. 21, 2000
A look at how business is going for GoTo. Its stock has plunged, but some analysts are fans.
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