Search Me Doom ahead for search engines that charge listing fees
Search Me Doom ahead for search engines that charge listing fees
Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Monday, January 28, 2002
In a regrettable move, Internet pioneer Yahoo! recently joined competitors such as MSN.com, LookSmart and AltaVista in seeking payments from Web sites that want to be included in their online directories.
Many Web surfers probably haven’t realized it yet, but most of the big online search and directory firms (with the notable exception of Google) recently started asking for money from sites that want to be included in their indexes or listings. The charges range anywhere from roughly $80 to $300, payable annually.
It’s a move worth noting, because respectable media outlets traditionally get their money from advertisers and/or subscribers rather than from their subjects.
And let’s be clear about one thing: Online search and directory firms are media outlets. But rather than TV programs or news articles, they serve up information and entertainment in the form of site links. The problem they are now bringing down upon themselves revolves around their misunderstanding of the critical role a very basic journalistic principle plays in running a successful media business.
Put simply, the search and directory firms have put their futures in question by flouting time-tested business practices that require an absolutely clear separation between editorial content and advertising.
Most search and directory firms are now paying mere lip service to those rules. But they exist for some very sound reasons. They don’t just protect readers from paid propaganda masquerading as information or news, however good and useful that may be. They also protect the credibility and, by extension, the financial viability of the media outlets themselves. Once that credibility is lost, a media outlet has very little of value left to offer either readers or advertisers.
That’s the slippery slope the big search and directory sites are heading down. The more search results are populated with what are essentially paid ads, the less useful those results — and the firms that provide them — will become.
The Internet search industry’s misplaced ethics even put Google, the current search-industry gold standard, at risk.
Google is the best search site around. Nonetheless, the company’s Web site warns users that “we do not add all submitted URLs to our index, and we cannot make any predictions or guarantees about when or if [submitted URLs] will appear.”
Google’s advertisers, on the other hand, are invited to buy prominent places on the results pages that appear whenever users search for any particular words or phrases. Google deserves credit for labeling its paid links as ads (and for the company’s unusually extensive archives). Many other search sites are far more deceptive when it comes to identifying advertisers. But either way, the result remains largely the same. Users get less of what they’re looking for — and more of what someone else wants them to see.
Yahoo! was one of the last big holdouts. The company, which relies on Google for its Web searches, caved in a few months back when it embraced a business practice it had long abhorred and began charging $299 for each site submitted to its own in-house directory.
It’s one of several strategic changes the ad-starved firm has made recently, which also include its new deal with NorthernLight.com to resell access to articles from selected publications. (As an aside, a few years ago one of my publishers had to instruct Northern Light to stop selling articles it did not own, including some I had authored. Lesson: You should check the original publication’s Web site before you buy anything from Yahoo!’s new content partner. You might be able to find the same article free of charge someplace else.)
Yahoo! doesn’t guarantee that sites will be listed in exchange for the submission fee, just that they will be reviewed for possible inclusion. In what looks very much like a desperate bid to keep up appearances, Yahoo!’s Web site also says the company will still provide a “free review” to Web-site owners that can’t or don’t want to pay the tab. But Yahoo! makes no promises about how long it will take to make those reviews unless the site owner antes up first.
My request for one of Yahoo!’s free reviews has gone unanswered for more than a month now. Hardly a day goes by, however, when my e-mail box isn’t inundated with offers from third-party companies promising to get my site listed on Yahoo!, and elsewhere, in exchange for some cold hard cash. Most of those offers are basically scams, though. Typically, they just pass along Web-site information to the search engines for the same glacially slow “free review” process that can be obtained without their help.
The alleged shortcomings of big media are well known. They include understandable concerns about the effects of concentrated media ownership, charges of inadequate diversity and claims of ideological biases of one sort or another. Many people had hoped that online media would rescue us from such problems, in part, by democratizing the flow of information. In the online utopia, everyone was supposed to have the same level of access to everyone else.
But now that push has come to shove, a very different picture is emerging. And it’s the big online new media industry, not the old guard, which is sacrificing its integrity and the interests of its readers for short-term financial gains.
The search firms are certain to pay a very stiff price over time for putting their reputations as honest brokers of information in jeopardy.
It boils down to a matter of what it takes to gain and maintain the trust of the user community, otherwise known as readers (a.k.a. people). To the bean counters, the strategy of billing companies and individuals to have their sites indexed may seem financially savvy. But the executives who signed off on that unwise move should have boned up a bit more on the history of publishing and journalism first.
Experience has shown that readers rebel whenever advertisers dictate content. Instead, they tend to gravitate to less-biased sources of information. That’s not to say that the mainstream media or the reporters or commentators who work for it are without biases or ethical problems. It’s just that, outside of pop radio, blatant payola is usually not among them, let alone a standard way of doing business. You don’t find The New York Times (or the San Francisco Chronicle, for that matter) giving the first quote in a news story to whoever pays top dollar. You do, however, increasingly find the biggest spenders holding down the top listings on search and directory sites. The result is already painfully clear.
Take the financially desperate AskJeeves.com, for example. Most of my recent queries at that site have generated results that appear to be intentionally unrelated to the questions posed. The first thing that shows up when AskJeeves’ visitors seek information on the demographics of California’s telecommunications industry, for example, is a referral to what looks like a business partner selling consumer-electronics items. I got pretty much the same kind of answer to 15 other questions.
Askjeeves certainly isn’t the only search site selling out its users. The line between content and advertising has been blurred across the entire Internet search industry. The blame goes to a combination of economic pressures and inept corporate leaders, many of whom don’t appear to have a clue about what it takes to make a successful media business tick.
Here’s what I think will happen as a result:
Paying customers will continue to desert search engines as their credibility and usefulness declines. Meanwhile, mainstream media outlets seeking to augment their own online offerings will begin buying up some of the most beleaguered search and directory operations, undoubtedly for far less than they cost to build.
The old-line media outlets have their own problems, to be sure. But at least they know how and where to draw the line between content and advertising. By using more traditional tried-and-true journalistic business practices, and by combining their own content with unbiased search results, today’s big-media conglomerates could soon put themselves in position to control the online-information pipeline well into the foreseeable future.
The process will unfold slowly and gradually. But within the next few years, I expect to see most big online search and directory firms evaporate as stand-alone businesses. Instead, search will probably become just another feature on mainstream media Web sites.
The best of them will find better ways to index the information, either on their own or with partners. That might even involve some old-fashioned ideas such as (gasp!) putting search results in alphabetical or chronological order when requested. The companies that do the best job of serving users over time will win the largest audiences, and the most advertisers.
As for Yahoo!, the company claims it has not sacrificed its virtue because it doesn’t currently list every site that pays it (as some of its competitors do). But accepting cash in exchange for listing considerations creates a powerful economic incentive to provide more paid listings and fewer free ones. That’s why many once-useful search and directory sites now resemble those newspaper look-alike advertising flyers that most of us toss into the trash unread.
There’s a well-known story about a guy who asks a woman if she will have sex with him for a million dollars.
“Yes,” she says.
Then he asks her if she will have sex with him for $20.
“What do you think I am, a prostitute?” she fires back.
“We’ve already established that,” says the man. “Now we’re just quibbling about price.”
The search-engine industry is now hanging out in the Internet’s red-light district. It’s only a matter of time before most of the public begins to look elsewhere to find what they need.