A special report from the Search Engine Strategies 2003 Conference, August 18-21, San Jose, CA.
It's been a busy year for the major meta search engines, with a number of notable developments that have restored their usefulness as worthy search tools.
Over the past year, Dogpile got a new look and features, Vivisimo announced Release 4.0 of its award-winning clustering engine, InfoSpace.com re-launched as a dedicated Yellow and White Pages destination site, and Intasys agreed to sell its wireless billing subsidiaries in order to focus exclusively on Mamma.com.
Three of the major players in the category - Brian McManus, EVP of Search and Directory, InfoSpace, Patrick Hopf, VP Business Development, Mamma.com, and Tony Philipp, President, Europe and EVP Business Development, Vivisimo - were panelists at a session entitled Meet the Meta Search Engines, which was held on Day 4 of the conference.
Together, they explained why meta search engines were once hot, had been elbowed aside by Google, and are now back in 2003.
Their story starts back in 1996, when the first meta search engines were established. Allowing searches to be sent to several search engines at the same time gave early users the impression that they were getting more comprehensive results. This led to their early popularity.
However, meta search engines typically mixed paid listings with organic listings, without any type of disclaimers. In addition, Google initially refused to partner with meta search engines, undercutting their claim of comprehensiveness. Finally, fraud problems hit a couple of the alternative pay-per-click search engines that were distributing their results to meta search engines. As a result, the whole category "turned into a dog."
So, what happened to turn things around? Three things.
First, the meta search engines have responded to criticism and worked hard to remove all of the ambiguity about whether results have been purchased by advertisers or determined by search algorithms. For example, "Mamma Recommends" was renamed "Mamma Classifieds" two years ago to ensure that users understood they are paid listings. More recently, Dogpile has started to clearly label all sponsored listings -- at the bottom of each individual listing, not just as a group.
Second, Google is now one of 15 search sources for Mamma.com and one of 13 search sources for Dogpile. Other sources shared by these meta search engines include Ask Jeeves, Teoma, About, LookSmart, and FindWhat.com. This helps to restore the earlier impression that meta search engines are providing more comprehensive results than any single engine.
Third, the major meta search engines are spending more time and effort "protecting the clicks" and emphasizing the "quality" of their partners and audiences. This doesn't mean that meta search engines will become more popular than Google, Yahoo, MSN, AOL, or Ask Jeeves anytime soon. Nevertheless, if you are trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack, then meta search engines are much less likely these days to bury you in straw.
Greg Jarboe is the co-founder of SEO-PR.
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