Visible and Relevant: A Paid Inclusion Case Study

Paid inclusion, the practice by search engines of crawling a company’s index and listing results in exchange for payment, has been linked in the popular mind with corrupted results and a failure of objectivity. Several engines, including MSN’s and AskJeeves, recently dropped inclusion results. Google has always taken a strong stance against money-for-crawling, citing its “don’t be evil” motto. Yahoo is now the last major bastion of paid inclusion.

Never mind that when used as intended, paid inclusion can actually benefit relevance.

Take Radisson, for example. TrafficLeader, an SEM firm owned by Marchex, is in the second year of its relationship with Carlson Hotels (owner of Radisson and Country Inns & Suites, among others). Paid inclusion has been successfully deployed for the hospitality giant’s 700 domains and sub-domains.

By 2002, Carlson knew it should optimize its Web presence through search, but the company’s deep, property-specific content was largely invisible to search engine algorithms. It tapped TrafficLeader to solve its search problem with a paid inclusion program.

At its start, the program used only Radisson site URLs. Radisson has 435 hotels in 71 countries, accounting for a total of 102,000 guest rooms with variable rate and occupancy information.

“This is a huge aggregation of sub-domains and deep content that would otherwise go largely unnoticed by major search engines without the use of inclusion technologies,” said TrafficLeader CEO Jerry Wiant.

On its own, Wiant points out, this data would be all but inaccessible to search algorithms. So Radisson provided TrafficLeader with access to its entire inventory in database form. The SEM firm then created trusted feeds, and submitted them to its search partners, which include Yahoo, Alta Vista, Looksmart, InfoSpace, Lycos, Mamma, Excite and Dogpile.

TrafficLeader’s program increased Radisson’s user traffic from approximately 7,000 visits per month during the first campaigns in 2002 to over 125,000 in June 2004. During that time, Carlson expanded the program to include all its properties. The company reports conversion has been excellent, but it didn’t provide specific results.

Inclusion: Who Needs it?

Companies like Radisson stand to benefit the most from paid inclusion, according to Jupiter Research Associate Analyst Nate Elliott.

“If you’ve got a lot of inventory, if your prices change regularly, then inclusion and trusted feeds are a great option,” he said. “Radisson is the kind of advertiser for whom inclusion was created.”

Trusted feeds, which add frequency to an inclusion program by pumping updated page content into the search index, are key to maintaining relevance in results where Radisson’s listings turn up. They’re especially important for companies with fluid pricing structures.

“Without a feed, [engines are” going to have out-of-date rate information and out-of-date occupancy information,” said Elliott. “That doesn’t help the advertiser; it also doesn’t help the consumer.”

This certainly applied to Radisson. “Since most major search engines update their index only every two to six weeks, Radisson was interested in a search inclusion program that could update its listings every few days,” said Wiant.

Against Inclusion

With the heightened relevance, how did inclusion and trusted feeds get a bad name? Can inclusion actually harm relevance?

The debate rages on. When Ask Jeeves bowed out of paid inclusion, the company cited concerns over how inclusion data impacted its relevance. MSN sounded a very different note when it recently suspended its inclusion program.

“The case can be made that paid inclusion improves the relevancy of searches,” a representative of the portal told The New York Times. Rather, MSN’s decision to abandon the practice was reached “to ensure people clearly understand which results are advertisements.”

For MSN, it came down to user perception. Even Google, which has taken a strong position against inclusion, doesn’t criticize its impact on relevance. Rather, the company believes on principal that engines should never receive payment from marketers merely for crawling their indexes. Google says algorithms should be able to achieve that on their own.

Problem is, according to Wiant, they can’t.

“Nobody is able to support the notion that ’less is better’ when it comes to total pages and types of pages indexed in a set of search results,” he said. “Any search user would prefer to have a more comprehensive search index that includes every product from major retailers, updated as often as possible. Without search inclusion, untold millions of highly relevant Web sites are simply left out of search results or not updated frequently enough, due to the technology limitations of algorithmic search.”

Until algorithmic search improves to the point where it can effectively crawl such search-unfriendly sites as those operated by Carlson Hotels, inclusion will be an important component of search engine result relevance.

“In reality, relevance is the single greatest attribute of effective paid inclusion, both for organizations using it and consumers,” Wiant said.

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