Paying to Get Listed at Search Sites
By Reid Goldsborough
When you pick up a magazine or newspaper, you want to know whether what you’re reading was written to inform you or to sell you something. It has long been a publishing tradition to clearly separate editorial material from advertising material. Both have their purpose, but both also have their place.
The same principle applies to the brave new world of online publishing, though because it is such a new world, norms and practices are still emerging. This applies as equally to Web pages as to the technology that often gets people to them — search engines.
Search engines have been criticized for not clearly indicating when sites that appear prominently in search results do so because they’re relevant or because these sites paid the search engine to make them appear that way.
Organizations such as Consumers Union (www.consumersunion.org), which publishes Consumer Reports magazine; and Ralph Nader’s Commercial Alert (www.commercialalert.org) have been vocal in expressing the importance for search sites to fully disclose when search results are paid for, as has the Federal Trade Commission.
The top search sites have responded by making some significant improvements, as Consumer Reports WebWatch (www.consumerwebwatch.org) has pointed out. Google, for instance, places paid listings under one of two “Sponsored Links” headings, one at the top of the page in a shaded box, the other to the right of the page. Yahoo does the same, though it calls its headings “Sponsor Results.”
If you’re a consumer, does it make sense to click on these paid links when looking for information? If you’re a business, does it make sense to budget marketing dollars for paid placement?
Kevin Lee, the most visible expert in the country on paid search, answers yes in both cases. He writes a weekly column on the subject for ClickZ (www.clickz.com), the well-regarded free online publication about online marketing; heads up Did-it Search Marketing (www.did-it.com), a New York City search-engine marketing firm; and currently chairs Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (www.sempo.org).
Before talking with Lee, I was skeptical. I mostly ignore paid links, as I suspect many other consumers do. I also well understood that Lee has a vested interest in promoting paid search. But he does present some powerful arguments in support of paid search, for consumers and businesses alike.
First off, it’s a big business. These textual ad links generate more than $4 billion in revenue a year for search engines, he says. If they didn’t work, companies wouldn’t be paying search sites this kind of money.
For businesses, he says, paid search makes sense because it allows for more control than the unpaid, or “organic” option. “You test, and if it doesn’t work, you cancel,” he says.
For consumers, he says, paying attention to paid links makes sense because they can be as or more relevant than unpaid links. “Businesses are paying to be there and don’t want to waste their money.”
What businesses pay for are keywords, the words Web searchers type into the search fields. When a keyword matches something related to the company’s product or service, the company’s site will appear on the search results page. Search sites sell keywords through real-time auctions. Businesses can buy this advertising themselves, though search engine marketing firms help the process by identifying keywords to bid on and then testing the results.
According to Lee, “All the studies indicate that consumers pay attention to paid search.” He recognizes, though, that some consumers pay more attention than others.
Interestingly, with Google, the most popular search site, consumers don’t pay as much attention to paid links on the right of the page as the top of the page, where they’re blended in more with unpaid results. Consequently, when auctioned, keywords that appear at the top go for more.
Yahoo, along with offering “paid placement” like Google, also offers advertisers a controversial option called “paid inclusion.” Here, companies pay not to be listed separately from the nonpaid listings, but to ensure that they are considered for the nonpaid listings. These listings appear no differently from listings of those sites who don’t pay.
In announcing this option Yahoo says that paid inclusion just ensures that these sites will be indexed more frequently and that they will be able to submit more information for Yahoo to include.
All of this points again to the delicate balancing act between editorial material and advertising material.
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