The Bumpy Road to Maximum Monetization, Part 2

Confusion Caused by Greater Monetization

It remains to be seen whether the quality of search results will suffer as the search engine industry inevitability moves toward greater monetization. What I call the “florist argument” is employed to say this won’t happen. It goes something like, “If I list 100 online florists, does it really matter if another 25 decide not to be included because they won’t pay?” Probably not, but such answers really can only be measured on a query-by-query basis. We’ll have to watch and see.

Clearly a move to greater monetize editorial results is fraught with potential for consumer confusion. “Am I searching the entire Web or just a collection of yellow pages ads?” a user may wonder. “Do I have to pay for these programs or will search engines visit me anyway?” site owners may ask.

Those looking for answers will get mixed messages. Search engines with paid-inclusion programs sell site owners on the idea that payment ensures key pages are not omitted or allowed to grow out of date. The same companies will then proudly talk about how they have great, comprehensive, and fresh results for users.

Mixed messages doesn’t create trust in search listings, which is a key reason why the Ralph Nader-backed group Commercial Alert filed a complaint over unclear listings with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last year. Trust in search engines may take another hit, due to LookSmart’s decision to make its cost-per-click (CPC) pricing change retroactive to sites that had already paid the company a one-time fee to be reviewed.

LookSmart emphasizes it gave those who paid exactly what was promised: a yes or no answer about whether they would be included in its listings. Payment did not cover a lifetime supply of free clicks. Many site owners and marketers disagree. People posting on forums, who have contacted me via email, or whom I’ve talked with personally at our recent Search Engine Strategies conference in London believe LookSmart essentially sold directory inclusion. They think making CPC pricing retroactive is unfair.

Far from taking LookSmart for a free ride, these people paid the required fare when they got on the LookSmart bus. They are now surprised, upset, and disgusted to find the driver coming back to tell them to pay more. Many feel LookSmart is ripping them off. The threat of a class-action lawsuit is sprinkled in their messages and conversations.

Establish Standards or Impose Them?

What has the effort to maximize monetization delivered? It’s kept search engines in business, an important point that cannot be forgotten. However, the haphazard way the search engine industry has lurched toward monetization has brought an FTC complaint and might instigate a lawsuit over submission fees. In addition, lawsuits have been filed against search engines over ads involving trademarked terms.

These complaints impact every major search engine, regardless of who errs, because consumers and even experienced people may fail to understand confusing nuances about how search engines sell listings. Google, the “pure” search engine, learned this lesson earlier this year, when the launch of its new CPC AdWords Select program was misinterpreted as selling editorial results.

Among the major crawlers, only Google has never had a paid-inclusion program, feeling that would compromise the quality of its editorial results. It has also always clearly delineated the paid ads from its editorial results. Nevertheless, the confusion associated with the AdWords Select launch made it necessary for the search engine to post a note on its home page reiterating it does not sell results.

There’s much talk that the search engine marketing (SEM) industry — the third-party “search engine optimization” firms that work to improve placement in search engines — needs standards. The reality is the search engine industry itself — Overture, Google, LookSmart, and so on — needs standards even more.

What do site owners get when they pay for submitting something? Will that price change down the line? What should they expect search engines to do for free? What should search engine users expect in their results? Should paid-placement listings, which are guaranteed to show up for particular keywords, be labeled using standardized language? Should paid-inclusion links, especially if they are going to be more present in editorial listings, be flagged in some simple way, such as with small icons, as a means of disclosure?

All these issues need answers. Either search engines must come up with those answers in a more unified voice, or the inevitable move to greater monetization will be followed by the certain regulation of a profitable, growing, and increasingly confusing industry by some governmental agency.

Search Engine Marketers: Include your company on SEMList.com.

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