Ironically, while paid listings are sometimes dismissed as a form of search engines selling out, the listings are actually policed far more than crawler-based results, which have grown so much over the past two years.
Google provides an excellent example of this. Do a search at Google, and the "main" portion of the page consists of links that come from crawling the web.
Google uses an automated process to try and rank these results in order of relevancy, and it leverages the human power of links from across the web to help provide the judgment that humans can give. However, the listings are not actually reviewed or approved by humans, and that can pose some problems.
For instance, search for "home loans" on Google.com. People from around the world turn to Google.com, though the primary target audience for the site is in the United States. Despite this, two web sites offering Australian home loans appear in the first page of results. Also, the last site gets listed like this:
Now imagine if you wanted to run an ad on Google targeting "home loans." If you were Australia-based, your ad might be rejected as deemed not relevant enough to the largely US audience on Google.com searching for "home loans."
Certainly if you submitted a description and title like the one above, your ad would be dismissed out of hand as clearly not communicating why your site is relevant for the search term.
Not to single Google out, a search for "desk calendars" at MSN Search brings up this listing from the crawler-portion of the results:
Well-structured guide to Internet news and reference facilities. Includes links to expert advice, homework helpers, weather pages and sports.
This site, while it looks to be a great reference resource, has nothing to do with "desk calendars." The page simply has both words listed on it in separate places, but that was enough to somehow convince Inktomi's algorithm to make it one of the top choices for "desk calendars."
In 1999, it looked like humans might take over from crawlers. But then the relevancy of crawlers, in large part due to Google, began rising. In addition, crawling results is far cheaper than employing human editors to organize results. Bye bye went the directories from Go.com and Snap in 2001. We were left with Yahoo and LookSmart, which have paid submission products that fund their efforts, and the ODP which is a volunteer project.
Or were we? Overture has an editorial staff that could rival Yahoo's, with over 100 editors reviewing and approving listings. Google, that beacon of technology, has its own staff involved in editorial review of ads. In many ways, these companies are running directories, places where humans power results. No, they don't categorize results traditionally. Instead, they categorize results by keyword.
Indeed, Overture said Yahoo was surprised when the editorial teams for both sides met for the first time last year. Both companies have guidelines for writing listings that seemed nearly identical.
In some ways, paid listing services are the "new" directories of the web, and there's no doubt the listings they produce are relevant. Indeed, when reviewing the associated article for this sidebar about guidelines for ads, where I wrote that money was a key reason behind the push for relevancy, Overture's editor in chief Dana Baker commented:
"Money is not my chief reason. My chief reason is keeping the user happy. As editor-in-chief, I am really a proxy for the user."
However, no matter how relevant paid listings are, they cannot stand alone. For instance, a search for "microsoft windows" ought to get you easily to the official page at Microsoft about the family of Windows operating systems.
Google's editorial results do this, listing it second on the page. At Overture, the same page never gets listed, and somewhat relevant pages from Microsoft itself don't appear until after 22 paid listings.
In fairness to Overture, the company's model is not designed to send people to its own site. Rather, it powers partners. Its smart partners will combine Overture's relevant paid listings with good editorial results, so that the combination prevents problems like what happened with "microsoft windows." But partners that go the pure paid listing route, such as Go.com, aren't delivering a balanced search experience.
Compare & Contrast: Ad Guidelines At Overture & Google
The Search Engine Update, Aug. 5, 2002
Part article to this sidebar, this explores the editorial guidelines at Overture and Google for advertisements.
Directories Power On
The Search Engine Update Oct. 18, 1999
This past article for Search Engine Watch members explored how directories were outpacing crawler-based search engines, in 1999.