April 2, 2004, 12:00 AM

Land of the (less) free

These days, more and more formerly “free” search engine traffic comes with a cost attached.

Search engines provide free traffic to site operators, but these days, more and more formerly “free” traffic comes with a cost attached. In concert with its subsidiary Overture Services Inc., which has made a business of selling top positions in search results, Yahoo Inc. has launched a new paid inclusion program for commercial site operators that provides a direct feed into Yahoo’s index. The Content Acquisition Program targets deep and dynamic content less easily found by web crawlers and ensures it a place in the 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 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.

Overture’s Chris Bolte, vice president of strategic alliances, says that 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 removes what has been the mystery of dealing with search engines. “The interaction between search engines and content providers has been something of a guessing game. We’re trying to make it clear and structured so content providers know how to operate,” he says.

But figuring out how search engines work has made a business for providers of natural search engine optimization – so where does the proliferation of paid inclusion programs that uncloak some of that mystery leave them? For one thing, many such companies have expanded beyond natural search optimization services into a broader advisory role that provides strategic counsel on all search engine marketing, paid and unpaid. And they 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.

Outside of paid keyword positions, ranking in search results is still determined by the search engine’s relevancy, and each engine’s criteria for relevancy differs, based on unique algorithms. And while paid inclusion programs can diminish the mystery of formatting content to make it more digestible by a search engine’s web crawlers, the mystery of the engine’s proprietary algorithm remains.

“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. So that means search marketing firms will continue to advise clients on strategies to ensure that the included content attains top ranking on relevant keywords and then help marketers optimize that spending.”

Similarly, search engine marketing firm OneUpWeb’s CEO, Lisa Wehr, says paid inclusion programs such as CAP don’t render natural search obsolete. “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. Under that scenario, she adds, Yahoo’s listing would be no different from any yellow page listings. Yahoo, meanwhile, has said its goal is to index all web content, paid or not.

While natural search and non-paid listings will continue as key parts of search engines’ indexes for competitive reasons, what’s likely is that engines will continue to look for new ways, like the expansion of paid inclusion, to monetize traffic. And where does that 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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