Thursday, June 24, 2004

Paid Inclusion Debate Isn't So Simple

Yesterday, CNET News.com reported on the phase-out of paid listings by the search engine Ask Jeeves. The article says that "Critics say paid inclusion can blur the lines between editorial content and advertising." Well, those lines have been blurring for a long time, as we at Shore have been pointing out. Most of the paid inclusion programs instituted by the major search engines have had the objective of providing a more comprehensive and relevant service. To some extent, the paid inclusion programs have provided a way to include sites that would not automatically be placed high in search results due to the text-driven algorithms used by the search engines, although the sites may be very relevant to the user's query. In addition, users are clicking on paid search listing ads, so they obviously find many of them relevant and useful to their queries, too. So, the "paid" listings clearly have some role in increasing the relevancy and completeness of the search engines.

A couple of questions that need to be raised when this issue is debated:
--How should search engines incorporate results from sites that are not dominantly textual? Even if new algorithms are developed to rate the relevancy of, let's say, a numeric database, should the listing for the site be commingled with textual sites. Or, would it be more helpful to categorize the site separately in the search listings display?
--Since the lines between editorial content and advertising are blurring, how do you draw the line to decide who should pay to be listed and who should be included because of the relevancy of the content?

Ask Jeeves' SVP of search products, Jim Lanzone, states, "...it doesn't make sense to draw a distinction of a site in the index--if it's good, it's good. We have to have it anyway; why would we make them pay anything." But, let's face it, someone has to pay, and in the competitive field of Web search engines, advertising revenue is going to continue to be critical for some time. Wait, let me phrase that another way, fees from paid listings are going to be critical (since ads are paid listings of a sort). The challenge for the search engines is to find a way to display paid listings, results from text-heavy sites, and results from non-texutal sites, so that the multiple objectives of coverage, relevancy, editorial integrity, and ease-of-use are maintained for the customers. We should expect to see some developments in the layout of results pages from search engines in the near future.

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