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Inclusion and Its Discontents

  |  March 22, 2004   |  Comments

Yahoo's new Site Match program put the company on the brink. How the company can convince marketers, and consumers, it's doing the right thing.

Yahoo announced its Site Match program at Search Engine Strategies a few weeks ago and the effect was... seismic. In a session I attended, someone from Google referred to the program as "evil" (although he did so in a backhanded way). All this over what's really just a rollup and rebrand of a bunch of existing programs.

Site Match is paid inclusion, with a twist. In case you haven't caught up on the details, here they are: Site owners can pay a flat fee per URL to have their sites indexed every 48 hours, guaranteed. The twist is in addition to the flat fee, site owners also pay a fee for each click. So pay-per-click (PPC) listings will now appear in organic results. Those listings won't be marked in any particular way.

The Ethics of Inclusion

The cornerstone of advertising ethics is consumers must easily be able to distinguish ads from content. The sly comment from Google insinuates Yahoo crossed that line, as organic results are content. I'm not totally convinced.

There must be a test (as legal folks like to say) to determine what content is. It's clear to me a site, in and of itself, is content. But does a pointer to that site qualify as content?

It also seems content is a product of human intelligence, editorial decisions, and an attempt to communicate certain concepts. Search indexes are products of algorithms. It's the existence of this algorithm that protects Yahoo from ethical infringement. The algorithm is independent and exists only to generate relevant lists of sites. It's outside business concerns. At least, it needs to be.

By including PPC results within organic listings, Yahoo set itself up to generate revenue by favoring its PPC clients. Yahoo has incentive to game its own system. That ain't good. It introduces the perception of potential ethical breach. Yahoo just put itself on the brink.

Charging PPC in Inclusion Makes Sense

Charging a PPC with inclusion is not just a money grab by Yahoo. I'm sure Yahoo is happy about the revenue this model will generate, but don't think it's the primary motivation for launching the program this way.

If clicks are free in a paid inclusion program, site owners can optimize for volume: search spam. If clicks cost, site owners must optimize for relevance. When site owners pay for clicks, they must be mindful of where and how frequently they show up.

Search providers should be aggressively vigilant about spam. The problem must be solved with technology and human policing. PPC in inclusion is an economic tool against spam. Is it the only economic tool available? There may be others, though I haven't heard reasonable suggestions just yet.

The PPC economic tool isn't free. Yahoo will spend plenty of money defending it to not only the industry but also the public at large. Is PPC a money grab? Perhaps, but if it harms consumer brand perception, it's far from a good deal.

To-Do List

What Yahoo should do -- immediately -- is put controls in place that will either change the system or provide consumers and site owners with confidence Yahoo's algorithm is protected from any concerns. Three suggestions for its to-do list:

  • Hire an ombudsman. An ombudsman is a media company employee specifically in charge of watching practices and enforcing ethics. This person would have full visibility into all practices and the ability to stop any program viewed as crossing the line. The ombudsman gets to talk directly with the public about what's happening inside the company. Such a person would help prevent (and dispel the perception of) potential system gaming by Yahoo itself.

  • Develop a consumer-alert method. I don't know if Content Acquisition Program (CAP) listings should specifically be labeled, but Yahoo does need a way to ensure consumers understand the nature of how results pages are built. That's what we're talking about here: Site owners aren't buying their way into the index but into results pages. A fine distinction, but two types of listings live alongside one another on those pages. Consumers should be aware of that.

  • Talk to the community. When I talk to site owners, search engine optimizers, and even some resellers, CAP feels like a rollup of several different programs. That's not good. There's confusion over implementation details and a fair amount of concern about getting left behind. PPC controversy aside, this is CAP's other big issue

    The basis of the program, as I see it, is an ability to communicate with Yahoo over methods of getting listed. But it felt like this program fell out of the sky. I see more Yahoo people reaching out, via discussion boards for example. That's a good thing. They need to do more of that, and they need to do it now.

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Gary Stein

Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.

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