Why Search Engines Must Continue to Be Referees – Part 2


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There Remain Many Receptive Fish in the Ocean

In some ways, the free nature of the search engine placement game obscured the fact that particular site owners’ means of playing the game were every bit as damaging to the legitimacy of the online research enterprise as paid listings can be. In part because a lot of the paid listings and partner links are going  to be foisted on an often-unwitting “receptive” demographic (users of mass consumer portals like MSN and AOL, and cute-and-cuddly search destinations like Ask Jeeves), they may not pose an enormous threat to the integrity of the “online research enterprise.” Smart consumers have always had to be wary of advertisers acting in bad faith on search engines, in newsgroups, in email spam messages, etc. Just because a marketing method is free doesn’t mean it’s innocent.

Yahoo! to Whiners: “We’re Just Doing Our Job”

The past few years of anti-Yahoo! sentiment and general carping and moaning about search engines’ competence arose from both

  • (i) the ranks of those site owners who sought to unleash their localized brand of evil on the unwitting search engine user, and
  • (ii) from end users victimized by the successful tactics of this vast army of unruly small-fry marketers.

The former group provided the impetus for the development of no-better alternatives such as the Open Directory Project, premised on Yahoo!’s supposed inability to “keep up with the growth of the web.” The founding masterminds behind ODP were actually technology marketing executives (as opposed to, say, democratic theorists). Their small army of followers, the volunteer editing corps, was populated by students, hackers, small entrepreneurs, geeks, and small site owners with big dreams; thus one wonders if “Yahoo! can’t keep up with the growth of the web” wasn’t just code for “I’m not getting a bunch of free traffic to my site from Yahoo!”?

Beefs from site owners about slow consideration of directory submissions are now addressed by the paid submission services at Yahoo! and LookSmart, wherein editors will pay prompt attention to your submission for $199. As the grumbles about those fees die down, there is still no shortage of scheming to get free traffic while the getting is good. And it’s some of those schemers who will be the first to make noises about Altavista, Google, and Inktomi being “incompetent” for dropping or re-ranking their pages in their regular re-indexings. In spite of the inevitable complaints by those jockeying for free traffic, the arbiters of relevance at major search engines serve the advertiser’s interest by doing what’s in the public interest: developing strong, discriminating search technologies.

The search engine marketer also benefits when a major portal provides the legitimizing cloak of a strong brand presence which integrates web search into a trusted package of online tools and custom information services. In exchange for that brand-linked legitimacy, is it even fair to ask a major portal like MSN or AOL to drive traffic to you through a listing you got for free?

When is a Guide Not a Guide?

This is one bone I have to pick with the recent redesign of Disney Internet Group’s Go.com. The relaunched Go.com search results pages devote a big chunk of screen real estate to web sites appearing in the volunteer-edited Go Guide. To me, it looked like a lot of small retailers – and some not very worthy ones – were being smuggled into the directory (at no cost) by incompetent or corrupt volunteer Go Guides. In essence, Go is giving away the legitimacy of its search technology and its enormous brand presence to these small site owners for free. I’m not saying they should charge for listings. I’m just saying that the process by which web sites receive this free marketing benefit needs to be perceived as fair. The search experience, in which users see an edited “guide” taking up a large portion of screen real estate, must offer something of real value or relevance to the searcher. What’s the formula for relevancy, or the criteria for assigning star ratings to sites, at Go Guide? How many truly competent editors “work” there?

Conclusion: Good Referees Make the Game Worth Playing

To sum up: search engines can confer legitimacy on a marketer’s product or service, either by wrapping search results in a reliable portal “brand,” or by reassuring power searchers that they are using a state-of-the-art search technology offering superior search relevance. Savvy surfers, those who see themselves as “power users,” are a nice demographic to target for many businesses. Who doesn’t want a customer who knows what they’re looking for? Such users may be highly predisposed to search-engine-legitimized marketing messages because they have done research using keywords. When the user’s research points to your publication, product, or solution, this gives you as a marketer a serious advantage: they went looking for answers, and found you. They’re not very far off from being a customer.

Given the many-faceted advantages of legitimacy conferred by search engine placement, it’s little wonder that a whole industry has emerged to help particular participants in the game juice up their search engine visibility. But the search engine positioning industry needs to be kept in its place by the search engine referees, or the search experience in general will be overrun by the particular interests of particular marketers.

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