Will Paid Inclusion Be Banished?

With MSN and Ask Jeeves eliminating paid inclusion listings from their search results this month, Yahoo is the lone holdout among major search engines to let advertisers pay to have their Web pages in its search results.

Unlike paid placement, advertisers paying for inclusion in a search index are not promised placement. Instead, they are promised that their sites will be included in a search index. The practice has advantages for businesses with constantly changing Web pages that are not indexed as frequently by Web search spiders.

Search leader Google has taken a firm stand against the practice, vowing never to accept payment for inclusion. Its IPO filing makes its stance explicit: “Our search results will be objective and we will not accept payment for inclusion or ranking in them.”

Google’s stance has gained converts.

Ask Jeeves this month banished its last vestige of paid inclusion, Site Submit, which let Web publishers pay to ensure Ask Jeeves’s Teoma spider scanned their sites. The Emeryville, CA, search engine eliminated its Index Express XML paid inclusion service in March that charged each time a listing was clicked.

MSN followed suit this month when it unveiled a new look to its search pages. A longtime user of paid inclusion pioneer LookSmart, MSN removed all paid inclusion from the search engine, including Site Match listings provided through its use of Yahoo’s Web search technology.

Yahoo remains committed to its 6-month-old Site Match paid inclusion program. When it debuted the program, Yahoo executives explained that it would address the problem of search spiders not reaching all the Web’s content.

As a companion to the paid program, Yahoo operates the Content Acquisition Program, which lets noncommercial sites feed their Web pages through for free. Yahoo has signed National Public Radio, the Library of Congress, The New York Public Library and others for the Content Acquisition Program.

“We are still committed to the Content Acquisition Program,” Yahoo spokeswoman Stephanie Ichinose said. “We continue to work with content providers to consider ways to evolve and improve the program.”

Nate Elliott, a Jupiter Research analyst, said paid inclusion still has a bright future because search engines simply cannot refresh their indexes quickly enough to offer the best possible search results. Jupiter expects paid inclusion spending to reach at least $200 million next year.

When it dropped Site Match from its listings, MSN did not rule out returning to some form of paid inclusion, including through Yahoo, as long as it is clear to users which listings are paid and the index is improved.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see MSN back in the [paid] inclusion game,” Elliott said. “They clearly don’t have any philosophical problem with it.”

Fredrick Marckini, CEO of Arlington, MA, search marketing firm iProspect, said most of his clients use Site Match, benefiting from the guarantee that Yahoo will crawl their sites every 48 hours. Since iProspect estimates up to 70 percent of all clicks occur in the algorithmic search results, Site Match has been useful, he said.

“Without Site Match, you’re never assured that more than 50 percent of the Web site will be included in the index,” he said.

Critics contend Site Match gives the appearance that Yahoo favors paid inclusion listings over non-paid, since it charges a fee each time a paid inclusion listing gets clicked. Marckini does not think Yahoo gives Site Match listings favorable placement, but a submitted listing is easier for Yahoo’s search algorithm to consider than a crawled Web page, giving a paid inclusion Web page a de facto boost.

Jim Lanzone, vice president of product management at Ask Jeeves, said the search engine found combining structured content of paid inclusion feeds with unstructured content of Web search like mixing “apples and oranges.”

“We found that it affected relevance,” he said. “Sometimes that would be positive, but that was an accident. More often than not it was negative.”

The Federal Trade Commission two years ago issued guidelines for paid inclusion, recommending that search engines “clearly and conspicuously” disclose that some sites paid to have their Web pages included in the index. Yahoo provides that disclosure under an “about this page” link at the top of its search results page.

Danny Sullivan, the editor of Search Engine Watch, an industry Web site, has criticized Site Match for not disclosing which listings paid to be included in the index.

“I don’t like the way it’s currently offered on Yahoo,” he said. “It goes against how Web search is traditionally supposed to operate.”

The greatest concern for Yahoo could be Site Match affecting its standing as a search engine. It ranks behind Google in search share, drawing 30 percent to Google’s 36 percent, according to comScore Media Metrix. MSN ranks third with 16 percent of searches.

“The only way this could really hurt them is if consumers dislike Yahoo because it uses [paid] inclusion,” Elliott said. “But consumers don’t know it’s happening.”

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