LookSmart First To Charge Commercial Sites

After months of beta testing, LookSmart has become the first major search service to charge commercial sites to be reviewed for inclusion in its listings. In addition, the revenue-generating move appears to have helped LookSmart win back its former position as AltaVista’s directory provider. It has also strengthened LookSmart’s ability to compete as a provider against the Open Directory, which allows any search site to use its human-compiled listings for free.

LookSmart’s “Express Submit” service does not guarantee commercial sites a listing or better rankings. This isn’t pay for placement, as at GoTo.com, where a site can pay more to appear higher in the search results. Nor is it pay for inclusion, where a site would only be included in listings if it paid a fee. Rather, this is pay for consideration. The payment levied against commercial sites ensures that they will be considered for inclusion into the index in a timely manner, but they should ultimately only be listed if they also meet editorial criteria.

In LookSmart’s system, commercial sites can pay US $199 to be listed within the directory, assuming they meet acceptance criteria. The vast majority of sites will meet these, so spending the fee isn’t much of a gamble.

“The percentage of rejection is pretty low, but we do hold them to the same standards,” said Kristin Morse, LookSmart’s director of ecommerce.

If a site is rejected, refunds are no longer offered, as was the case in the past. However, there remains a 30 day appeal period. Sites can make changes and then reapply during this time, without having to pay again.

The $199 option has been available since January, but a new $49 option has just been added. The only difference is the response time. Those paying $49 may have to wait up to eight weeks for their sites to appear, assuming the sites meet acceptance standards.

The lower price point is a compromise between LookSmart wanting to accommodate sites with little money and the problem of commercial sites continuing to use the free submit option, when it was available to them alongside the pay submit option. Morse estimated that of the over 1,000 submissions sent through the free option per day, 80 to 90 percent of them were from commercial sites. By requiring all commercial sites to use the pay option, this should make it easier for non-commercial sites to be listed.

I certainly hope that this proves to be the case. If so, it should benefit both searchers and webmasters, because some non-commercial sites that were lost in the blizzard of commercial submissions may now get the attention they deserve.

LookSmart doesn’t guarantee how long it will take non-commercial sites using the free submit option to appear. However, Morse said that any qualified site really should show up within eight weeks. I’d rather hear that this will happen within a week or less, which would show that removing the commercial stream of sites really will benefit the non-profits.

If you run a non-commercial site and don’t appear within eight weeks, resubmit. Alternatively, non-commercial sites can use either of the paid options, to speed up the process. By the way, non-commercial means that your organization is formally registered with the US government to have not-for-profit status. Unfortunately, even if your site is a labor of love that earns you no money, you cannot use free submit unless you are registered.

Should businesses get up in arms over the new charges? I’d say not. This is the price of doing business on the web, just like paying for a domain name or for a professional web hosting service. Yes, it is possible to run a web business using free web space and without getting a domain name of your own, but you will ultimately be more successful in the long run by doing so.

In fact, if you are serious about doing business on the web, using free web space is a false economy. One reason is that it is often difficult to ensure that all the traffic going to your free web site can be redirected to your new site, when you finally make the move to your own space. Do it right from the beginning, and you won’t regret it.

Also, unlike a domain name, the LookSmart submission fee is not recurring. You pay once, and that’s it. Moreover, a LookSmart listing will generate traffic for your web site, which is not the case for registering a domain name (unless its a good, generic one). Your site will be listed in LookSmart’s main results, the main results of MSN Search, and will also be available through other ways at iWon and AltaVista, to name only LookSmart’s major partners.

Do the LookSmart submit changes mean that some deserving commercial sites may go unlisted, because they cannot afford to pay or refuse to pay. Possibly, but not necessarily. LookSmart strongly emphasizes that the submission system is only one way editors find potential listings. Editors are also watching various resources across the web, looking out for new web sites to add independently of the submission service.

“We are keeping intact our usual editorial policy of finding the best of the web,” said Scott Stanford, LookSmart’s vice president of ecommerce and distribution. “If luck favors you, your site will be found, as soon as our editors get to it.

I’d strongly advise those with commercial or non-commercial sites not to leave it to luck. Use the paid option rather than relying on editors to find you. You’ll probably get listed faster, and more importantly, you can give them suggestions about how your site should be described and where it should be listed. If you leave it to the editors, they may not include important terms relevant to your site, in your description.

Charging a fee should also limit the amount of spam and irrelevant listings that LookSmart editors receive, which anyone who operates a search engine can tell you is a serious problem. In fact, many webmasters who have become editors at the Open Directory have reported gaining a much greater appreciation of how few people submit correctly, after they’ve had to step into the editor role.

One serious concern is that LookSmart’s standards might drop in order to allow more sites in and thus ultimately make more money. LookSmart has previously said it has no intention of letting standards slip and that listings would continue to be handled by the editorial staff, rather than becoming an advertising option.

LookSmart’s search partners will share in the wealth the new submission system will produce. MSN Search, Excite, iWon and AltaVista now or soon will have options allowing people to submit directly to LookSmart and thus appear within the LookSmart-powered portions of their web sites. LookSmart said these partners will receive some of the submission fees, in relation to the submissions they generate.

iWon and AltaVista are recent partner wins by LookSmart, with AltaVista being most notable. LookSmart had provided some of AltaVista’s results from January 1998 through October 1999, when the Open Directory took over as the primary directory provider. The attraction of the Open Directory is that it doesn’t charge for its listings, while LookSmart was engaging in licensing deals or ad share revenues for those who wished its services. Because of this, it seemed as if LookSmart couldn’t continue to attract new partners. After all, the logic went, who would pay for LookSmart’s listings when they could get listings from the Open Directory for free?

Now the submission revenue share option flips that argument around 180 degrees. Why go with the Open Directory, when going with LookSmart might make you money? This isn’t the only reason future partners might choose LookSmart, but it is an important factor. The News.com article below touches on the revenues AltaVista expects to make. LookSmart takes over from the Open Directory as AltaVista’s exclusive directory partner later this month.

Another factor here is LookSmart’s recent redesign, made at the end of June. The company recently deemphasized features such as free email, news headlines and horoscopes, designed to help it compete as a portal, and the directory structure has been left in place primarily as a demonstration site for potential partners such as iWon or AltaVista. In many ways, it reflects LookSmart’s goal to be a behind-the-scenes directory provider, similar to how Inktomi is a behind-the-scenes crawler-based search engine provider.

“The message for our partners is that we are not in the business to compete with them but rather to support them,” said spokesperson Liz Connaghan.

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