GoTo Gets Cloned

If imitation really is the most sincerest form of flattery, then GoTo must be blushing. Several new pay-for-placement search engines have sprung up over the past few months, hoping to emulate GoTo's success.

Of course, a key to GoTo's rise has been the incredible way the service has marketed itself online, in print and radio, and more recently on television in the US. GoTo has firmly established itself as a well-used search site. Indeed, in the US, it is ranked as one of the top 50 sites by Media Metrix and only recently slipped out of Nielsen//NetRatings top 25 list.

Gaining this popularity has been crucial. No one wants to buy listings at a search service that sees no traffic. Similarly, the challenge GoTo's clones face is convincing webmasters that it is worth the bother to establish accounts with them. New players like Kanoodle, FindWhat and Rocketlinks have the GoTo model, but can they deliver the goods?

They certainly are nowhere near GoTo's traffic yet, and it remains to be seen if any of them will push through to become a major player. But nevertheless, site owners with advertising budgets should consider these services. For a minimal amount of work, they offer the ability to easily tap into additional traffic.

Ready to try them? Then here's a closer look at the challengers to GoTo's throne:

Rocketlinks leads the pack, at least according to statistics from rating service PC Data Online. Rocketlinks had 750,000 visitors in December, according to its estimates (Rocketlinks itself reports 2 million unique users per month). To put that in some perspective, PC Data estimated that GoTo had over 5 million visitors for the same period, while Yahoo pulled in over 32 million visitors. Clearly, Rocketlinks is on the map -- but it still has plenty of catching up to do.

How is Rocketlinks, which launched last September, generating its traffic? President and CEO Lance Laifer said the service has been running banner ads across the web, which were the fifth most viewed banners for the last week of 1999, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. Additionally, the company has targeted newsletters, such as this one, ClickZ Today, and others.

Of course, you can't just put up a pay-for-placement search engine without some sort of backup for when a query has no bidders. Rocketlinks' partner may come as a surprise -- it's Google. Do a search for any obscure or unpopular topic (from a site promoter's point of view), and it's normal Google results that will appear.

Well, almost. At the moment, there will always be at least one paid link, because of a deal with directory site They have a flat six cent bid for any term. This means that even if you search for something nonsensical, such as "ooodles," you'll see 4Anything appear.

"The reason we do this is to increase the yield we get from our searches. Many searches are done on our site that we have no prospect of getting paid for," Laifer said "The link gets clicked on a high percentage of the time and our users seem to like it," he added, explaining that it lands users at a high quality site that covers many topics.

Advertisers fear not -- this doesn't mean that you must bid at least seven cents to rise above the ever present 4Anything links. Laifer said that even a one cent bid will beat the six cent bids by 4anything, as long as the company has not specifically bid on that topic.

While I called Rocketlinks and its kin GoTo clones, the service does differentiate itself by selling placement-by-bid on its home page. "This has given advertisers, who want large volumes of traffic, to bid for that traffic on a competitive per click basis, as opposed to a pay per impression basis," Laifer said.

Next in the pack comes Kanoodle, which launched in October. To me, it stands out because of important links it has negotiated on the bottom of Snap's search pages and on the Netscape Net Search page. The company has also been busy trying to drive traffic with radio and print ads.

PC Data didn't have any ratings for Kanoodle, which is an indication that either Kanoodle isn't very popular or that the rating service has a glitch in ranking the site. Kanoodle claims glitch, that its use of unusual page extensions (.cool rather than .html) seems to be to blame. We'll see if the problem is corrected -- but Kanoodle's positioning with two major search engines makes me believe it to be a strong contender. FYI, Chief Operating Officer Michael Feeley gave a self reported figure of 793,000 unique visitors for December.

Like GoTo, Kanoodle depends on Inktomi for its unpaid listings. But similar to Rocketlinks, there's always at least one paid placement. A deal with meta search tool keeps that service everywhere with a one cent bid. But if another advertiser also bids one cent, they should move above Mamma's placements.

The service also offers some incentives to advertisers. Want help getting started? There's a special $85 deal that includes Kanoodle researching 25 key terms, writing titles and descriptions for your listings, and also provides $50 worth of bid credit.

Kanoodle also offers free banner ad impressions to sites that occupy the top three spots on a page, though I had one reader complain in November that he felt that the banner rotation delivered fell well short of what was promised.

FindWhat went live last September, at the same time that Rocketlinks emerged. But despite being born in the same month, FindWhat has only a third of Rocketlinks' traffic. According to PC Data, FindWhat had 255,000 visitors in September. However, a new $1 million give-away that began in December might increase FindWhat's visitors. The contest is being advertised with radio spots and outdoor advertising, and a print campaign is planned. The company also just launched an affiliate program designed to increase online awareness.

FindWhat uses Inktomi for its non-paid results, and it appears to have no special deals that produce a paid link for any type of search, similar to the Mamma and 4Anything situations mentioned at the other services.

At the search engines I've already mentioned, there's no limit as to how many listings can be sold. In contrast, SimpleSearch, only sells the first five positions on a page. After that come unpaid results, provided by Direct Hit.

"We have done some research in the past and have found that 80-90 percent of all internet users select from the first five sites listed on each page. It greatly benefits our paid ranking customers; and, in turn, our users because of the high relevancy factor required from each customer," said SimpleSearch Customer Service Manager Paul Renneker.

SimpleSearch launched last June, then added paid listings in August. So far, it just barely manages to register on PC Data's radar screen. The service site estimated that SimpleSearch had 27,000 visitors last month. The low traffic means that this might be one to wait on, especially for those pressed for time.

Similarly, HitsGalore seems a secondary choice, not being rated by PC Data at all. However, the company says it ran a national radio campaign this past May and June. The service launched way back in September 1998 and introduced paid listings in November of that year.

Even a meta search service is getting in on the listings action. OneSearch (not rated by PC Data) just added paid links this month. They appear above the listings gathered from other major search engines, such as HotBot and Lycos.

As you consider paid listing options, keep some tips in mind. To me, the most important is that there is often a "sweet spot" between where top bidders are fighting it out and the rest of the crowd stays below. For instance, over at GoTo, the top six sites for "casino" are all bidding in the $6.50 range. But bid just over $5, and you could come in at position 7. Or, $4.50 would slip you into position 9.

Of course, the paid placement services will tell you that being in the very top spots will attract the most traffic. "Our research shows that generally, the number 1 listing gets 3 times as many clicks as the number 5 listing," GoTo advises advertisers, within its bid management system. They are probably right, too -- though naturally it's also in their interest to get you competing. If traffic is important and money is not a concern, then go for those top slots. But if you are more budget conscious, look for those sweet spots -- you might find they generate traffic on a less costly basis.

Also consider the number of listings that are displayed. GoTo presents up to 40 listings per page, and my feeling is that this gives most anyone on the page a shot at some traffic. In contrast, Rocketlinks presents only 20 links per page. That makes it more likely a low bid will slip onto the second page of results and consequently encounter the usual dramatic drop-off in clickthrough. FYI, FindWhat presents 25 links per page, and Kanoodle offers 30.

Finally, more than anything else, GoTo should be on anyone's list with an advertising budget. It offers a straight-forward way to capture some serious traffic. And here's an extra benefit -- GoTo is carried by the popular Go2Net/MetaCrawler service. Sites there are generally ranked more highly if they appear in the top results of two or more search engines. Purchasing a place at GoTo can help combine with any editorial rankings on other search engines to move you up at MetaCrawler.







PC Data Online Reports

PC Data Online isn't as well known as the ratings kings of Media Metrix and Nielsen//NetRatings. However, it offers an unparalleled view into the popularity of smaller sites. You aren't just limited to a top 50 list. Enter any site, and if it is in the top 10,000 web sites in terms of traffic (as estimated by PC Data), you'll be shown stats.

GoTo Search Terms Report

Shows you bids across the board, making it easier to find that sweet spot I mentioned.