In The Search Interface Of The Future from MediaPost, David Berkowitz looks at future history, envisioning a move where Ask Jeeves puts paid listings in the prime left-hand column of results, with unpaid results relegated to the less noticed right hand side. An uproar ("Boycott The Butler") ensues, but Ask -- to some degree like GoTo back in 1998 -- holds its ground. Traffic survives, and revenues skyrocket. Others eventually follow, but then a crash happens when consumers ultimately train themselves to still seek out the "natural" results wherever they are.
It's a funny story, well worth a read, but it's not necessarily fiction. Last year, I wrote about how Yahoo thought surviving the uproar over paid inclusion was worthwhile because it allowed it to monetize that important left-column better: The Paid Inclusion Dinosaur. I also wrote in the same article how Ask Jeeves was putting up to 10 paid listings in the left column of its results, pushing the "natural" results well to the bottom.
Ask is still doing that. Search for dvd players, for example, and it's 10 paid listings you get. Anything deemed highly commercial is likely to go up to this maximum amount, if there are that many ads available. But a search for repetitive strain injury prevention isn't as commercial, so the ads are fewer.
Meanwhile, as our forum threads The Little Engine That Could - Part II and Ask Jeeves is One Brand - Teoma Who? discussed, we even had a situation recently where Firefox users were seeing fewer ads than Internet Explorer users, something that since has seemed to stop.
Speculation was that this was a way Ask was trying to present a more "pure" face to a potentially savvier Firefox audience while shoving ads down the throats of all those dumb IE users :)
I emailed with Ask Jeeves senior vice president of search properties Jim Lanzone about this when the topic was heating up at the end of February, and here's what he sent:
We have been trying to work our way to a better balance between the user experience and monetization. What you are seeing are tests we're running of different configurations of the results page. Firefox users are easily segmented in terms of giving them a test configuration, and yes, that configuration has fewer ads. The majority of users are receiving the current "normal" results page, which takes what Google gives us, up to 10 results in highly commercial categories.
In some cases, more ads might be useful. Ads can be relevant. But it can also be annoying to get too many, if the natural results turnout to have the better answers you need. Ask has indeed been leading the way in trying to get the balance right. If it does so, Berkowitz's speculation of higher revenue is assured. And if it and the others fail, they'll see a collapse, as well