March 23, 2004, 12:00 AM

Search engines look to monetize more traffic, but natural search is key

Paid inclusion programs charge a fee to get into a search engine’s index – but proprietary algorithms aren’t for sale. Relevancy still determines ranking in search results.

Search engines provide free traffic to site operators, but these days, more and more formerly “free” traffic comes with a cost attached. Yahoo Inc.’s new Content Acquisition Program targets deep and dynamic content less easily found by web crawlers and ensures it a place in Yahoo’s index – for a fee. In addition to a cost per click paid by all program participants, the program charges content providers that submit pages to the index under a self-service model an additional flat fee per URL submitted.

Paid inclusion that also charges a cost per click represents yet another expense for marketers fighting to be found on the web, but in an increasingly crowded web universe, such expenses are increasingly becoming part of the ticket. “There`s a strong perception that search engines are essentially public utilities, but they’re not. They are companies that make money by pointing consumers towards resources on the web, so clearly search engines need to be increasing the number of searches that are commercial,” says Gary Stein, senior analyst at Jupiter Research Inc.

By giving program participants a structured method for providing information to Yahoo Search, including technical support on formatting content or actually producing feeds into Yahoo’s index, CAP takes some of the mystery out of dealing with search engines for marketers and other content providers. Figuring out how search engines work has been the business of providers of natural search engine optimization, but search engine marketing firms point out that simply paying to be in an index does not guarantee any place in search result listings, let alone that critical first page of results. Relevancy and rankings are still determined by an engine’s proprietary algorithms.

“Inclusion is not ranking. And Yahoo will not reveal its ranking algorithms to advertisers, period,” says Fredrick Marckini, CEO of search engine marketing firm iProspect. “They are not giving away the keys to the kingdom.” In fact, search engine marketing firm OneUpWeb’s CEO, Lisa Wehr, says natural, unpaid search will become even more important to Yahoo for competitive reasons. “To be competitive Yahoo has to have a search spider that actively crawls the web and provides fresh, updated content in natural search results. Otherwise, it`s an engine that is full of nothing but paid listings,” she says.

What is likely is that the engines will continue to look for new ways, like the expansion of paid inclusion, to monetize traffic. And where does that trend leave online marketers that depend on that traffic, and increasingly, pay for it? “It’s hard to deny that this is just a cost of doing business on the web,” says Stein.

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