Not long ago, I wrote about how an AltaVista sales representative had pitched the company’s “Trusted Feed” paid inclusion program as a way to get guaranteed top rankings. AltaVista quickly denied this was the case, repeatedly emphasizing content in the program is not given any ranking boost over content AltaVista’s crawler technology finds and lists for free. Despite this, it turns out Trusted Feed content may indeed get a bump into the top results, in the right circumstances.
I tried a search for “oliver stone” at AltaVista and saw an example of what appears to be a ranking bump for paid inclusion content. The first five listings came from Buy.com, PriceGrabber.com, and NexTag — all pitching opportunities to buy the director’s movies.
If the search was for “oliver stone movies,” then getting such product-oriented listings might feel more relevant. However, getting these listings as top matches for a generic search about Oliver Stone feels very odd. Take this listing, which AltaVista’s algorithm supposedly has decided is the most relevant — out of nearly 340,000 possible matches — for an “oliver stone” search:
oliver stone – Buy.com
Easy oliver stone Shopping at Buy.com. Everyday Great Deals on Hot New Products and Leading Brands.
Similarly, a search for “pentium iii” brought up results dominated by what looked to be paid inclusion listings from the companies named above, as well as from DealTime. Several of these companies miraculously get top rankings for “microsoft trackball,” as well. These are just some examples of occasions when there seemed to be a high correlation between suspected paid inclusion pages and high rankings for the terms those pages were targeting.
AltaVista itself admits that paid inclusion content from its Trusted Feed program may indeed be doing better than it should. The company puts the blame on problems with index blending, which is the process of mixing matches from its “free” editorially compiled listings with those from its paid inclusion database.
“They may come up when there are more meritorious URLs,” said Jan Pedersen, AltaVista’s chief scientist, when asked about the ‘oliver stone’ and ‘microsoft trackball’ examples above and the correlation found in general. “That’s a demonstration of a problem with our blending rather than a matter of policy.”
Specifically, Pedersen said the problem lies in the fact Trusted Feed pages aren’t typical Web pages at all. Instead, the program allows companies to supply AltaVista with a list, or feed, of many URLs and some key information describing those URLs, such as a page title and a description to shown to the reader.
Sending AltaVista information this way is radically different from AltaVista gathering information about a page by reading its HTML content. Cues useful for ranking ordinary Web pages, such as the frequency of terms, their location, and link analysis, may not be effective when the system tries to rank pages based on the extremely limited information about them provided via the Trusted Feed program.
“They [trusted feed listings] are not Web pages and don’t benefit from the usual cues,” said Pedersen. “We make an estimate on how to blend them in.”
Pedersen said AltaVista is constantly working to ensure paid inclusion listings don’t appear more often than what their “entitlement” should be and aren’t crowding out ordinary editorial results inappropriately. However, he qualified this by saying that for commercially oriented queries, it may not be bad, in AltaVista’s view, for users to receive paid inclusion content up top.
“Most of the paid inclusion content is indeed basically catalogs from various commercial sources, and the queries that they do tend to come up with are queries of commercial intent,” Pedersen said. “The notion of relative relevancy there needs to be carefully assessed.”
In other words, many people searching for “microsoft trackball” may actually want to purchase the product. Paid inclusion is a mechanism allowing some online merchants to show up in editorial results when they might ordinarily stand no chance, because their Web sites are not search engine friendly.
“The base motivation here is to provide a better experience,” Pedersen said. “The reason it’s called ‘Trusted Feed’ is that we want to get good content from merchants of reputable intent.”
It’s a good argument, and one I’ve written about many times before when explaining paid inclusion. However, Trusted Feed content seems to be getting the high rankings not just for unique, unusual, or expressly commercial queries. From various tests conducted recently, Trusted Feed URLs seem to have a magical ability to rank well for nearly anything.
Apparent Trusted Feed content from PriceGrabber and Wal-Mart ranked in the top 10 for “die fledermaus,” “jazz guitar,” and “biorhythms.” Buy.com and PriceGrabber ranked well for “saturday night live.” PriceGrabber came up in top results for “waldorf astoria” and “x-files.” DealTime, eBay, Hammacher, AllPosters.com, and Amazon all ranked tops for “potholders.”
It’s important to note the well-ranking companies named aren’t guilty of any wrongdoing. I’m not suggesting they are spamming AltaVista or doing something incorrectly. They are simply companies that appear to be feeding AltaVista with Trusted Feed content and that, with a good deal of consistency, seem to have their content rank well for the terms they are targeting. And contrary to search engine optimization conventional wisdom, their good fortune seems to have more to do with AltaVista giving them a ranking boost than with the content of their pages being somehow exceptional.
Other companies beyond those named may be in the Trusted Feed program and be seeing unusually high ranks, as well. The difficulty is it’s hard to tell when looking at an AltaVista listing whether it is in the Trusted Feed program. AltaVista itself makes no attempt to disclose this (nor does any other search engine with a paid inclusion program). However, one can make some good guesses. Pages that have long URLs containing question marks and embedded tracking codes are very likely to be paid inclusion candidates.
All of the companies named here had URLs that met this criterion in some way. We also sent AltaVista a list asking if the companies named were in the Trusted Feed program. While the company didn’t say yes or no, the email did prompt a call from the company to talk further about the Trusted Feed program. Draw your own conclusion.
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