In Search Of Relevant Paid Links As Ask Jeeves

GoTo likes to talk about how "relevant" its paid listings are, which can sound funny. After all, isn't "relevancy" simply defined as who is the highest bidder? Not at GoTo. There are actually editors who will review ads to make sure that they seem somehow related to the search terms they are associated with. While GoTo's system isn't perfect, one can see the advantages in having such a review by contrasting GoTo with the Ask Jeeves paid links system.

Over at Ask Jeeves, a strong correspondence between search terms and ad content seems to have been abandoned over the past few weeks in favor of earning more money. Steve Colby, of, provides a good example. In October, he was the top bidder for the words "party lights," with an ad designed to bring people to his site that sells odd illumination items such as flamingo-shaped lanterns.

Out of the blue, Colby's site was suddenly bumped to the number three position. Who came in over him? These ads:

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What on earth did these ads have to do with party lights? Nothing. But the corresponding bid prices told the story. Rather than being just above Colby's $5 CPM bid, these ads came in at $50.50 and $50 respectively. What happened was that these two advertisers had "run of site" style deals with Ask Jeeves to appear for a wide range of terms.

This is bad on two fronts. First, it produces ads that are clearly not relevant to the terms. For a further example, the three current paid link ads at Ask Jeeves for "party lights" sell reducing homeowner debt, sending online holiday invitations and purchasing last minute trips. In contrast, all 15 paid links at GoTo are specifically relevant to the terms "party lights" (though what's probably a bug causes links 11-13 to lead to the same site).

The second problem with a lack of term-to-ad correspondence is that it alienates the smaller advertisers that Ask Jeeves ultimately may need to depend on to keep its system viable. The larger advertisers bidding on run of site-style "search buckets" bump out smaller advertisers, forcing them to pay artificially high prices to regain their positions.

For instance, none of the top three current advertisers for "party lights" at Ask Jeeves have actually overtly bid for that term. But, because that specific term has been included in a grouping of many search terms at the rate of about $10 CPM, an advertiser who really wants "party lights" is forced to pay more against people who never actually specifically selected it.

"If large advertising accounts are allowed to dominate almost all of the categories, regardless of [relevance”, than Direct Hit/Ask Jeeves becomes useless to us as an advertising vehicle," Colby told Ask Jeeves, in a letter of complaint

Ask Jeeves says it is aware of the problems outlined, and that changes could come.

"Since the system is relatively new, we have been trying different models and working with different types of advertisers to evaluate the results. Some of the larger campaigns try to fill impressions within a specific amount of time, targeted or not. The system is not unfair to the advertiser although not always flawless either. We have two choices with regard to choosing keywords: no involvement where advertisers choose their own keywords and tell Jeeves how they want to spend advertising dollars, or Ask Jeeves starts manually monitoring the system, and Ask Jeeves tells the advertisers how to spend their advertising dollars. Most of these larger campaigns will have finished by the end of the quarter, and we will be reevaluating the system to determine what provides the most fair bidding competition, the most effective use of dollars for advertisers and return on investment," wrote Ask Jeeves spokesperson Abigail Berens, after checking on the issue.

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Paid Links At MSN Search And Direct Hit
The Search Engine Update, April 24, 2000

More about paid links at Ask Jeeves. The MSN Search program also described has now closed.