Startup Plans to Offer Paid Visual Search

As debate rages over whether online display advertising can ever be as effective as paid search campaigns, a startup is striving to bridge the gap between the two channels.

To bring attention to its offering, visual search engine SearchMe plans to offer free advertising to trial participants in the coming month. Advertisers can apply at searchme.com/adview/beta. The freebie will be offered to the first 500 that apply.

SearchMe intends to build its business around sponsored searches based on keywords. Advertisers will pay to show up in two places: as full-page images from a brand’s home page or other display creative and as sponsored links in its table of contents in a left-hand navigation column.

“We have a totally different search experience [from Google’s],” said SearchMe CEO Randy Adams, a former engineering director at Adobe, during an interview today. “It’s great with display or video search. It’s great if you can recognize Web pages visually. It’s really far more useful for visual learners.”

Type in the word, “Oscar,” and an image showing the home page for the Academy Awards’ Oscar.com appears. A visitor can either click on the image to get to Oscar.com or browse through images — like turning the pages of a virtual magazine — of other SearchMe results for “oscar.” Advertisements that appear in the visual search results will be labeled “advertisement,” according to Adams. The company declined to disclose the names of advertisers participating in a recently completed trial. A search on the site, however, turns up at least one advertiser — Ralph Lauren.

Adams said the search engine has invested in making its results relevant. “The name of the game is to deliver the results. It’s all about calculations and scoring,” he said.

SearchMe, which launched publicly last year, has more than 3 million monthly visitors, according to Quantcast. The firm, which has received $43 million over more than three years, was originally funded by Sequoia Capital.

Last year, another search engine, Cuil, arrived on the scene with much fanfare. But Quantcast shows monthly visitors to Cuil dropped to 77,000 last month compared to 1.5 million in August 2008 soon after its launch.

Despite SearchMe’s steady growth, does it stand a chance against Google? After all, Quantcast shows that Google has more than 140 million visitors. Plus, two years ago Google started to integrate video and other rich media as part of its results page.

“For highly visual searches, there may be a place for this type of engine. However, because it takes longer to execute a search, it’s not perfect for many searches,” wrote Kevin Lee, CEO of Didit, a search marketing consultancy, in an e-mail interview.

Gary Stein, VP, strategy for Ammo Marketing and Freestyle Interactive, likes SearchMe’s look. “It’s a very slick, cool interface. It feels very visual and very dynamic,” he said. Still, he thinks it will be tough for it to change deep-seated behaviors that lead people to use Google.

Instead, he thinks SearchMe’s value might lie in its other features, such as a tool called “Stacks,” that allows a visitor to save or “stack” images, searches, and videos — and then share them on Facebook and other social sites.

Stein said there might be interest to an advertiser if a “stack” of content related to a particular topic — let’s say NASCAR — could be branded and possibly sponsored.

Just last week, Yahoo said it will allow advertisers to include images, video, and advertiser site search functions directly within search ads. While SearchMe shows the full image of a Web page or display ad, Yahoo’s promotional result — as currently designed — shows a thumbnail image that must be clicked to play a video.

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