In part one, we singled out AltaVista, but that’s because the evidence about its potential boosting of paid inclusion content is particularly damning.
We’ve had reports that other crawlers with paid inclusion programs might drop editorial content for “spam” reasons, yet mysteriously the Web site owner is called later about getting the content back in through paid inclusion (see “Desperately Seeking Search Engine Marketing Standards“). And there are whispers and rumors that paid inclusion will boost rankings on other search engines, despite their denials.
However, none of these other search engines have ever had a salesperson put this out in writing, as happened with AltaVista recently. The denial of that sales pitch by AltaVista is fine, but the boosting does seem to be happening, whatever the reason.
AltaVista does have a fairly large amount of paid inclusion content that can potentially rise in its main results for general queries — 10 million URLs, according to the company. Inktomi has about the same amount, but if these are ranking well on Inktomi for things like “oliver stone,” it’s less noticeable. That’s because Inktomi’s major partner, MSN Search, only really makes use of Inktomi’s data for very specific queries. As for FAST and Teoma, they have relatively little paid inclusion content, so it’s harder for this content to dominate queries.
To be fair, testing at some of the other search engines should be done, and I may conduct such inquiries in the future. It may reveal similar preference for paid inclusion content. Indeed, a quick peek at “pure” Inktomi results for “oliver stone” revealed possible paid inclusion pages from Amazon and eBay, while the cast of characters that came up for “microsoft trackball” included both those companies along with possible paid inclusion URLs from DealTime, NexTag, and perhaps some others.
Is this wrong? A search for “microsoft trackball” on Google brought up a page from Amazon’s U.K. site, a free, or “natural,” listing, since Google doesn’t offer paid inclusion. So, if some product pages come up naturally, what’s wrong with getting site owners to foot the bill for the traffic they receive? In addition, wouldn’t it be better to get product pages from large, trusted brand owners rather than those from affiliate sites, one of which appears in that same Google search mentioned?
Sure, nothing is necessarily wrong with such a thing happening. In fact, perhaps AltaVista could explore a new business model by taking in only paid inclusion content and touting itself as the place to go for product-oriented searching. The problem is it doesn’t do this now. Currently, the presumption is editorial and paid content will be balanced. It’s a messy situation, one that leaves the search engines offering paid inclusion open to claims of abuse.
What’s the solution? I’m uncertain, but it may be paid inclusion content has now grown enough that it will need to be separated from editorial content.
Perhaps part of the process would be to begin classifying this content. You have great news articles and want them included? OK, that might be considered for the editorial database. Have a product database of 100,000 items? Clearly, that’s commercial content, and we’ll dump it into our commercial index. But don’t worry — we always provide both listings as part of our results and, in fact, list commercial listings above our editorial results, so there’s a benefit to the paid inclusion program.
There’s still a downside, though. As soon as you have 11 people in any paid inclusion program offering a bump, there’s every incentive to play the “relevancy game” — trying to make little changes to be 1 of the 10 getting the top listings. The answer here may be that, where commercial content is concerned, paid inclusion sites may ultimately be ranked just like paid listing sites — the company willing to pay the most ends up on top.
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