Why Search Engines Must Continue to Be Referees
By Andrew Goodman,
November 24, 2000 - Page 2 of 2
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
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.