AltaVista Launches Paid Listings

AltaVista Launches Paid Listings

From The Search Engine Report
May 4, 1999
(a sidebar Q&A is available to site subscribers)

So it finally happened. One of the major search engines, AltaVista, followed's lead and introduced paid listings in April. Always a controversial idea, AltaVista did itself no favors through the inept way it launched the paid listings program. The program doesn't actually affect AltaVista's crawler-based results, but by moving forward with advertisers before explaining things to the public, AltaVista let dangerous misconceptions fester.

DoubleClick, which handles advertising placement on AltaVista, sent letters to existing banner advertisers on April 7 telling them of the new program. "When users perform keyword searches on AltaVista, what is the first listing they see? Now it can be your company's listing," the pitch began. A screenshot mockup also made it appear there would be no delineation between the paid and non-paid search results, although the paid results were labeled "Preferred Placement."

Almost immediately, word got out on the web. Concern was voiced on several mailing lists and web forums, while AltaVista stayed quiet for over a week. Not until April 15 did the company finally issue a formal press release informing the public and its users of its plans. Its silence fed into the impression that something sneaky or underhanded was going on.

In contrast, when shifted over to paid listings (no, it did not always have them), the company made a big public splash of embracing the model, saying that it firmly believed that the marketplace would improve relevancy better than any algorithm. AltaVista's making a somewhat similar pitch with its own program, but the delay in going public hurt its reputation. The company admits the program's introduction should have been handled better.

"I can't tell you how deeply I regret that, how deeply Rod [Schrock, AltaVista's President” regrets that. We very badly managed the initial communication," said AltaVista's marketing director Celia Francis. "I never really saw what went out," she said, referring to the DoubleClick pitch. "We should have checked what they sent out to their advertisers, because it wasn't how we would have liked to describe the program. We hadn't even finished the design."

The "AltaVista Relevant Paid Placements" program is still evolving, but here are the current details. AltaVista will display up to two paid links per search term, which appear within a box above the normal top ten crawler-based results Advertisers bid against each other through an auction process to be listed within this box, pledging to pay at least 25 cents to AltaVista for each time someone clicks on their link.

(Note -- though the program started with two listings when this was written, only one paid link per term will be displayed from early May through June. "Why the change? We want to provide a quality user experience first and foremost until we work out some design issues on this side. We will be migrating back to two listings in the future," said AltaVista spokesperson Eileen Quinn.)

The actual amount will depend on the price reached at the end of the auction process. Over at GoTo, which has a similar system, bid prices can be over $1 in some categories. Only existing banner advertisers could bid in the trial program for placements through the end of May, but by late June, anyone should be able to purchase placement through an online ordering system.

As at GoTo, AltaVista insists that the paid links be relevant in some way to the search terms. To see some examples of the paid placements, do a search for "insurance," "auto insurance," "cars" or "flowers." All will display paid listings that appear within a box labeled as "AV Relevant Paid Links."

The paid links mimic the look of AltaVista's normal crawler-based results, but the surrounding box keeps them physically distinct from these results. So why the outcry? It's because at all of the major services, there's an area of the search results page that's considered "editorial" copy which shouldn't be touched. When search engines say they don't sell listings, they mean that they don't tamper with this editorial area for money. The impression was that AltaVista intended to manipulate this editorial area for payment, and moreover, that it might not disclose this.

In reality, AltaVista's paid links have no impact on its "hands-off" editorial area. Its crawler-based search results haven't changed one bit because of the new program, except to move further down the page. In fact, all this concern over AltaVista "selling results" is generally overlooking the issue that there is no one set of "normal" results for AltaVista to sell.

AltaVista displays results that come from crawling the web, but it may also provide matching information from several other data sources: RealNames, AskJeeves, LookSmart and now, the paid listings database. Despite these multiple data sources, it's the crawler-based results that many people fixate on as the ones that should never be sold or even tampered with.

That's misguided, because people have been influencing these results and those at other crawler-based search engines for sometime. Manipulating crawler-based search results is increasingly becoming a sophisticated, industrial-strength affair. Any service that depends on automation for its primary listings is vulnerable to people who will try to outwit their ranking systems.

Search engines expend serious amounts of time and energy focused mainly on keeping out obvious and irrelevant spam. But this doesn't "level" the playing field. Sites with great content continue to be poorly ranked due to design issues, while some relevant sites get higher placement over other relevant sites simply because their webmasters know more about search engine optimization. In short, "pure" crawler-based results don't exist. Any automated system will have problems that discriminate against some sites, while simultaneously serving to attract those who wish to manipulate the system.

Because of this, it's probably time to completely eliminate crawler-based results as the primary source of information presented to users, unless relevancy is greatly increased. For one thing, it would immediately reduce the incentive to spam. More importantly, users continue to do extremely broad searches, and crawler-based results often don't provide the best answers to popular queries such as "games," "jokes" or "horoscopes."

Even an excellent link popularity system like Google's may downgrade new sites that haven't had a chance to gain good links, while Direct Hit's popularity ratings are useless if the underlying crawling system can't index pages from a particular site for some reason (if applied to directory listings, however, it offers huge potential to bring the best to the top. Watch for this coupling to be coming from LookSmart).

Human editors can and should be constantly reviewing query logs to provide us with high-quality choices for the most popular searches. Nor is there any reason these choices must necessarily take the form of a linear "top ten" list. Do a search for "beanie babies" at Snap and then click on the "Beanie Babies Shop" link. The page that appears offers a multitude of choices.

We're seeing some moves in this direction, such as the changes Excite has implemented that I wrote about last month. The growth of directories has also helped, another topic I've written on. But I think the best example of humans becoming involved is at Ask Jeeves. Instead of looking for an automated solution, editors at that service have diligently built up a huge database of answers to questions.

Ironically, it's AltaVista that has brought this high quality information to more users than ever before by rebranding it as "Ask AltaVista" on its own pages. When initially launched last October, Ask AltaVista information used to appear all the time. Now the data has been downplayed and appears less frequently. Instead of users worrying about the new paid listings, they ought to put their efforts into asking AltaVista to return the Ask AltaVista results to their former prominence.

Perhaps we'll see this happen. AltaVista is planning a wide-ranging series of changes to be introduced in the next few months. "We actually have a very exciting push coming," Francis said. "There's some stuff we are working on that will be significant." An enlargement of the crawler-based index seem likely to be one of those changes. I'm getting indications that this has already been increased to around 170 million pages.

Don't forget that running a major search service costs money. If including clearly labeled paid links on results pages helps fund them, so be it. When Infoseek launched, its business plan was for people to pay for searches. That failed miserably. If no one is going to pay these services to search, then they must have a revenue stream to stay in business. Banner ads are one means, but they are expensive and offer poor clickthrough to advertisers. Retailing partnerships are another means, but they largely exclude small businesses. Paid links are a direct and easy concept to understand that offer advertisers of all sizes the ability to reach a precisely targeted audience.

Paid links can also benefit users, because there is often a correlation between advertising budget and quality. Not always, but often. We've had yellow pages in the non-web world for ages, and they've successfully served phone users. There's no reason that search services can't successfully incorporate some of the things we like about yellow pages into their search results, coupled with strong editorial content.

In fact, if we want to see AltaVista try something innovative, how about donating some paid link space to non-profit and educational sites? Let them have some bidding credits to use. There will be plenty of terms that paid advertisers won't be targeting but which will be of interest to these types of sites. Use the paid links program to let them get to the top of the list, so that the world can find their sites more easily.

By the way, some might fear that a shift away from crawler-based listings might mean the end of little sites being found. This isn't the case. Crawler-based results should and will continue to be used as back-up to when a primary data source, such as editorially-compiled listings, can't provide a match. There's every reason for sites to continue to optimize their pages, and there's every chance that even those that don't will continue to get traffic. That's because a shift away from primarily serving crawler-based results would tend to have the most impact on popular, single-word queries where small sites already can't compete with the growing trend toward large-scale search engine optimization.

AltaVista Debuts Search Features
The Search Engine Report, Nov. 4, 1998

More about Ask AltaVista and the service's use of RealNames and LookSmart information in its results.

AltaVista Unveils Increased Search Relevancy
AltaVista, April 15, 1999

AltaVista's press release on the new paid listings.

Is AltaVista on the take?
Salon, April 22, 1999

An excellent look at the need for more relevancy from Salon editor Scott Rosenberg.

Alta Vista Invites Advertisers to Pay for Top Ranking
New York Times, April 15, 1999

The second paragraph is wrong in implying that the AltaVista search algorithm is now being sold, but overall, it's an interesting look at opinions from a variety of people.

AltaVista Hazy on Sold Searches
Wired News, April 16, 1999

Wired was the first major media outlet to run a story on the changes at AltaVista, and this follow up article reflects the confusion over the program that even an advertiser had.

I-Search Discussion List

Opposition to the change was great initially, but I'd say opinions are now more balanced as more details have emerged. Click on any of the files ending in "AVspecial.htm" to see comments.

Online Advertising Discussion List

Much discussion occurred here about the AltaVista listings. The online archives are currently down, but there is a way to get archives via email.

Compaq commotion may stir up AltaVista, April 19, 1999,4,35335,00.html

Some analysts think the changes at Compaq may cause AltaVista to be sold off. Note the comment from one industry analyst that "AltaVista is in a market that could only support two or three competitors in this space down the road." We've been hearing this conventional wisdom since 1996, and three long Internet years later, we have more services, not fewer. The web is not a supermarket, with only room on the shelves for Coke and Pepsi. The web market may be capable of supporting multiple portal offerings, especially if they pursue different business models. I have no doubt that by the end of this year, we will once again have more players, rather than fewer.

GoTo Going Strong
The Search Engine Report, July 1, 1998

A few months after relaunching with paid listings, GoTo was thriving rather than becoming a pariah of the search world.

Search engine files for IPO, April 16, 1999,4,35257,00.html

Speaking of GoTo, the search service plans to go public.

Pay For Placement?

A summary of articles that deal with paying for listings at the major search engines.