Can Portals Resist the Dark Side?

A long time ago, in a World Wide Web far, far away, Jedi Knights of Search struggled to bring results to those seeking order from chaos. The path was not easy. And as costs grew higher, the Dark Side beckoned. “Join with me,” Dark Lord Paid Placement cried to the Jedi, “and we can rule the Web together!” The Jedi of Search watched as one of their eldest, Go.com, a.k.a. Infoseek, fell to the lure of the Dark Side. Could others resist?

The battle now raging over profits in the search space may not be as dramatic as those of the “Star Wars” epic, but there’s definitely an element of “going over to the Dark Side” as two more search engines — iWon and Canada.com — shift to using paid-placement listings. Go.com made a similar move back in March.

“Quicker, easier, more seductive” is what Jedi Master Yoda called the Force’s Dark Side. Changing over to using paid-placement listings certainly must seem that way to portals strapped for cash. Why expend effort developing editorial-style listings when you can make guaranteed money by using paid placement listings? The answer: to keep your audience.

Your audience turns to search engines expecting to get good information in response to queries, and pure paid-placement results simply do not always provide that information.

For instance, I think most people would agree that a search for “star wars” ought to bring up the official Star Wars Web site. That doesn’t have to be the only site listed, but it ought to be included. Google comes through in this case, putting the official site right at the top of its results. In contrast, at iWon — now currently using GoTo.com’s paid listings for its main results — the official Star Wars site isn’t found until you wade through to the fifth page of results.

Similarly, it’s not unreasonable to expect to find the Canadian government’s Web site in a search for “Canada.” Again, Google does this. At Canada.com — now using Dogpile’s mostly paid-placement listings — the government Web site doesn’t appear. Instead, you find mainly vacation and accommodation listings.

Paid listings are not bad. Let me say that again: Paid listings are not bad. In and of themselves, they do not represent the Dark Side of search. As I’ve written many times before, paid listings have an important role to play in keeping search engines afloat. They also provide alternate results that people may be interested in.

For example, sometimes the ads in newspapers can be very important to their readers, as anyone who has ever looked to see what products are on sale or what time a movie starts knows well. Similarly, yellow pages are essential to many who need products and services. Like these examples, paid listings at search engines can play a role in connecting consumers with what they seek.

The real Dark Side is the danger of search engines offering nothing but paid listings. We need more than the equivalent of a Web yellow pages. Consumers need to see a wide variety of information rather than just viewing listings by those that can afford to advertise. Similarly, site owners with deserving content need to be represented, regardless of their advertising status.

It’s not all bad news. In the same month that iWon and Canada.com essentially jumped out of the search game, MSN Search and AOL Search made upgrades to their services and stayed clear of the pure paid-placement route. Both are healthy portals that can afford to make the investment in search. However, even beleaguered AltaVista steered clear of jumping into pure paid placement during its changes in May.

In short, it’s not just a matter of having the money to offer good search. It’s a recognition that to earn money from your audience, you have to keep your audience, which means providing more than just ads.

“We’ve gotten to where we are now by focusing on the user experience and monetizing where that doesn’t conflict with having great results,” said MSN Search’s general manager Bill Bliss. “At the end of the day, the people who provide a quality user experience are the ones who win.”

How the other portals and search sites react to the growing availability of paid-placement listings will be interesting to watch as the year progresses. Some have already lost audience as a result of arguably neglecting search. Giving up on it entirely by substituting paid results may give them short-term gains in the form of cash, but that’s unlikely to stem the audience losses.

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