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Saturday, March 29, 2003

BBCi dumps Google in favor of Inktomi

Stefanie Olsen of CNET reports that BBC.co.uk has dumped Google as its provider of web search results, awarding the contract to Inktomi after it was put out to public tender (required by law in Europe).

As the saying goes, "that's news to me!" I just wish it had been news to me about three days ago.

While in London this week, I actually made a rare trip to the BBC website as part of some background research for a seminar on search engine visibility at Nielsen Norman Usability Week on Thursday, March 27. The night before my talk, I double-checked some stats on the top web properties in the UK and did some test-driving of the search engine components, including a test of the BBC site's web search... just to see who was powering them these days.

As I reported to the audience for the seminar, I found some strange search results that looked to me like Google results but were not the same as current Google Search results for the test phrases I used. I concluded that this must be either an old feed from Google or some sort of proprietary use of the licensed Google technology. In the coffee break, one delegate approached me to painstakingly explain that she had worked for the Beeb and that in fact my explanation of their usage of Google's technology wasn't particularly accurate. She explained something about how they used Google Search which I didn't understand very well over the din, but I nodded dumbly anyway.

As it turns out, the strange results weren't Google at all! So Inktomi has a new partnership of some significance. Did you know that the BBC site is the #7 most-visited web property in the UK?

According to Olsen's news report, which unfortunately didn't come out until March 27 (the day I was blathering obliviously in seminar), the switch happened on March 20. Which was just in time to confuse me.

How interesting that a public tender wound up awarding Inktomi the contract. One surmises that its paid-inclusion model allows Inktomi to offer a better deal for its technology or a revenue share of some sort, since additional revenues may be indirectly generated from paid-inclusion clients paying for clicks through from searches on the BBC site. Google makes its revenues from its separate Adwords program, but they couldn't sell that to the BBC, since, in case you hadn't noticed, advertising isn't allowed on the BBC site.

So, these search results are blissfully free of advertising. I can't help but think, though, that it's slightly deceptive to pretend you're serving up an ad-free paradise while not disclosing the paid inclusion model that pays the bills. Who pays for paid inclusion? Why, advertisers, of course! Many of them even pay on a per-click basis.

The trick seems to be to run the public sector as if it were a for-profit business while pretending that serving the public good is the primary imperative. High-minded rhetoric serves to legitimate the public enterprise, but scratching this surface reveals the underlying reality: a bloody-minded attention to fiscal detail at all costs. (Sounds eerily similar to the dichotomy between heroic legend and profitability that lives inside the Googleplex, doesn't it?)

Moral of the story: if you've got a really cool car with a chrome tailpipe, chances are it's because your parents don't charge you rent for living in their basement... yet.

Moral #2: If you hate advertising and live in the UK, and don't mind viewing search results that may be influenced by a paid-inclusion model, you may wish to do all of your searching on BBCi!

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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