Can Portals Resist The Dark Side?

A long time ago, in a web far, far away, there were Jedi Knights of Search that struggled to bring results to those seeking order from chaos. The path was not easy, and as costs became high, the Dark Side beckoned. Join with me, Lord Paid Placement cried to the Jedis, and we can rule the web together! The Jedis of Search watched as one of their eldest, Go.com AKA Infoseek, fell to the lure of the Dark Side. Could the others resist....?

The battle now raging over profits in the search space may not be as dramatic as that of the Star Wars epic, but there's definitely an element of the Dark Side as two more search engines -- iWon and Canada.com -- have shifted over to using paid placement listings. This follows the similar move that Go.com made in March.

"Quicker, easier, more seductive," is what Yoda called the Force's Dark Side, and changing over to using paid placement listings certainly must seem that way to portals strapped for cash. Why expend effort developing "editorial" style listings when you can make money guaranteed by using paid placement listings?

The answer is to keep your audience. They are turning to search engines expecting to get good information in response to their queries, and pure paid placement results simply do not always provide that information.

For instance, I think most people would agree that a search for "star wars" ought to bring up the official Star Wars web site. That doesn't have to be the only thing listed, but it ought to be included. Google comes through on this, putting the official site right at the top of its results. In contrast, at iWon -- now currently using GoTo's paid listings for its main results -- the official Star Wars site isn't found until you wade through to the fifth page of results.

Similarly, it's not unreasonable to expect to find the Canadian government's web site in a search for "Canada." Again, Google does this. At Canada.com -- now using Dogpile's mostly paid placement listings -- the government web site doesn't appear. Instead, it's mainly vacation and accommodation listings that you find.

Paid listings are not bad. Let me say it again: paid listings are NOT bad. In and of themselves, they do not represent the Dark Side of search. As I've written many times before, paid listings have an important role to play in keeping search engines afloat. They also provide alternative results that people may be interested in.

For example, sometimes the ads in newspapers can be very important to their readers, as anyone who has ever looked to see what products are on sale or what time a movie is playing knows well. Similarly, Yellow Pages are essential to many who need product and services. Like these examples, paid listings at search engines can play a similar role in connecting consumers with what they seek.

The real Dark Side is the danger when search engines offer nothing but paid listings. We need more than Yellow Pages of the web. Consumers need to see a wide variety of information rather than just viewing those who can afford to advertise. Similarly, site owners with deserving content need to be represented, regardless of their advertising status.

It's not all bad news. In the same month that iWon and Canada.com essentially jumped out of the search game, MSN Search and AOL Search made upgrades to their services and stayed clear of the pure paid placement route. Both are healthy portals that can afford to make the investment in search. However, even beleaguered AltaVista steered clear of jumping into pure paid placement during its changes in May.

In short, it's not just a matter of having the money to offer good search. It's a recognition that in order to earn money from your audience, you have to keep your audience, which means providing more than just ads.

"We've gotten to where we are now by focusing on the user experience and monetizing where that doesn't conflict with having great results," said MSN Search's general manager Bill Bliss, "At the end of the day, the people who provide a quality user experience are the ones who win."

As the year progresses, it will be interesting to watch how the other portals and search sites react to the growing availability of paid placement listings. Some have already lost audience arguably by neglecting search. Giving up on it entirely by substituting paid results may give them short-term gains in the form of cash, but that's unlikely to stem the audience losses.

Pay For Placement?
http://searchenginewatch.com/resources/paid-listings.html

Past articles from me and others on paid listings and search engines. See the articles in the "General" section for more overviews of the complicated pros and cons involved in the issue.

Paid Placement Is Catching On in Web Searches
New York Times, June 4, 2001
http://www.nytimes.com/2001/06/04/technology/04GOTO.html

Excellent profile of GoTo and its reach into other search engines. Note the part where GoTo's own founder turns to another search engine -- Google -- for some of his searches. Paid listings (at GoTo and elsewhere) are great for products and services much of the time, but they are not the only thing that even GoTo's founder wants. Consequently, "search" sites offering only paid placement listings clearly aren't doing their job.

Elsewhere, a Lycos vice president suggests that better labeling of sponsored listings as "sponsored" will cause users to avoid them. Nonsense. People read ads, watch commercials and use the Yellow Pages when appropriate -- all of which are sponsored content. They'll do -- and are doing -- the same with sponsored links. The search engines just need to be brave enough to call these links what they are on their actual web sites, rather than just in their press releases aimed at investors.

Finally, also note that both LookSmart and Inktomi -- leaders in the far trickier area of paid inclusion -- are looking at ways that paid inclusion content could be boosted to the top of partner results. That pretty much goes against their usual arguments that paid inclusion is nothing to fear because the search algorithms wouldn't be tampered with.

The Virtuous Search Engine
Interactive Week, June 4, 2001
http://www.zdnet.com/intweek/stories/news/0,4164,2767661,00.html

Another look at the continuing developments in paid placement and paid participation programs at various search engines.