Search Engine Embargoes Keywords in Wake of Terror Attacks

Pay-per-click search engine Overture has prohibited bidding on "inflammatory or insensitive" keywords in response to the terrorist bombings and anthrax contaminations in the U.S. The firm took action in response to a "dramatic spike" in the number of "inappropriate" listings being sought after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, according to Tom Weedon, Senior Director of Relevance and head of Overture's relevance team.

"Coming to the decision to not allow these terms was very difficult for us," said Weedon. "It was something that we didn't really want to do. But it was important to us as a corporate citizen."

Overture, until recently known as, may not come to mind as one of the top search engines in its own right, but it has prominent partner relationships with AltaVista, AOL Search, Ask Jeeves, Direct Hit, HotBot, iWon, Lycos, Netscape Search, and several major metacrawlers.

Overture listings are featured prominently in results at these engines, usually near the top and highlighted as "sponsored links," "featured listings," or more recently, "products and services."

The company worked closely with its partners in developing the list of embargoed terms, according to Weedon.

The initial list prohibited thousands of keywords and phrases, including "bin laden," "terrorism," and "world trade center," but also seemingly innocuous phrases as "American flag" and "new york." Other phrases were classified as "non-embargoed terms that need special attention."

Yesterday, Overture removed the blanket moratorium on sensitive keywords. Weedon says the company has resumed allowing bids on sensitive keywords, but each bid is reviewed by a "specially trained" group of senior editors who will continue to reject insensitive or inflammatory listings.

Overture has tightened its overall relevancy guidelines over the past month. The company briefly described its new guidelines in a memo distributed to all customers (aka "advertisers") who bid on keywords for search engine listings. The memo stated:

"Effective immediately, we will only accept listings for search terms if the Web site provides substantial content that is clearly reflective of the search term. If a site contains content in the form of a text link, banner, or tile that directs users to another Web site, it will no longer be considered substantial content.

"To be in compliance with this guideline, there must also be a direct relationship between the search term and the main purpose of the Web site." The memo was signed by Ted Meisel, Overture's President and Chief Executive Officer and Jaynie Studenmund, Chief Operating Officer.

Overture does not expect the change to affect most of its advertisers. Those most affected by the changes are sites that bid on keywords that are not directly related to the site's content, even if the keywords may seem similar.

For example, "Home furnishings" would be relevant to a furniture store, while "furnished home" would be relevant to a real estate listing. They are not interchangeable. Overture evaluates the relevancy of search terms by looking at both the way (and the order in which) the search terms are written, according to Overture's listing guidelines.

Advertisers most directly affected by the new relevancy guidelines are operators of affiliate websites who seek to make a small profit by arbitraging the difference between the cost of a link listing paid to Overture and the fee paid for delivering a visitor to an affiliate web site. Prohibiting these types of intermediary sites arguably will improve search results, since affiliate sites simply hand off traffic to another site anyway.

Many of the keywords considered sensitive by Overture are among the most popular search queries at other search engines. Seven of the top ten queries appearing on Google's "Zeitgeist" list for September were on the list of terms banned by Overture.

To help users in search of legitimate information, Overture has created a set of "public service" listings that appear as the top search result for particular queries. "We have almost 200 of them on a whole host of things that are happening now and what happened on Sept. 11th," said Overture's Weedon.

For example, the top result for a search on "anthrax" is a link to a page from the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control entitled "Anthrax: Threats, Symptoms, Treatment." Though the "cost to advertiser" is listed at $50 for a single clickthrough this is just a mechanism to assure that the listing will always come up first. Overture is making the public service listings available without charging the operators of web sites providing the content.

Recent events have set sea changes in motion for web searchers. With numerous sites removing content, and search engines such as Overture and others instituting new listing policies, searchers need to be especially careful in evaluating search results. More than ever before, what you expect to see may not be what you get.

Overture's Listing Guidelines

Detailed information on Overture's relevancy guidelines, complete with many examples showing acceptable vs. unacceptable listings.

How Overture (GoTo) Works

A comprehensive look at how Overture works, available to Search Engine Watch Members.

GoTo/Overture Relevance Discussion

Webmasters discuss the recent changes to Overture's relevancy guidelines at the Search Engine Forums site.

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About the author

Chris Sherman is a frequent contributor to several information industry journals. He's written several books, including The McGraw-Hill CD ROM Handbook and The Invisible Web: Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can't See, co-authored with Gary Price. Chris has written about search and search engines since 1994, when he developed online searching tutorials for several clients. From 1998 to 2001, he was's Web Search Guide.