Paying Your Way to the Top: Search Engine Advertising

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What Does The User Think Of All This?
Mary Corcoran, vice president and lead analyst at Outsell, a research and advisory firm that focuses on the information content industry says she comes at this from an end-user perspective. "The bottom line," says Corcoran, "is that end-users are pretty savvy when it comes to information. They've been using all kinds of content for a long time. In a controlled-circulation magazine for exam-ple, people understand what is a paid advertorial and what is edi- torial. It is the same on the Web: people know what is paid. It's not an either/or world; it's a both/and world: advertisements come with editorial."

In fact, Corcoran adds that the information about who is doing search engine advertising is valuable competitive intelligence itself. "Many people doing a search want to know who is advertising," she says. "People want to know who is marketing in a space—for businesspeople this is important information."

Yukari Watanabe is a typical knowledge worker making use of search engines in her work as a specialist in the difference between Japanese and American medical systems. "Japanese language Google is my home page and I'll do at least 25 searches per day for both English and Japanese terms," says Watanabe. "Without Google, I couldn't have written my most recent book because I wouldn't have had up-to-date information." She clearly understands what is a paid listing. "I know when I search on the name of a drug, that the Internet Drug Store ads that appear on top are paid listings. I just treat them the same as I would AAA Plumbing Service in the Yellow Pages."

Should Organizations Deploy Search Without Ads?
As large organizations roll out commercial search engine solutions to thousands of users inside their corporate firewalls, information professionals may be faced with the choice of turning off paid results. Perhaps over time the commercial search engines for the enterprise (such as Google Search Appliance and Yahoo! Enterprise Solutions) may even adopt a business model that charges enterprises more money to deploy their search solution with the ads turned off.

But is it really that big a deal? "I have noticed a big uptake in the use of Google within corporations," commented Outsell's Corcoran. "But I have not heard from anyone within large companies that advertising on the search engines is an issue." Google's Norvig agrees, adding: "User tests show that people understand when they click on an ad."

To be sure, search engines are very careful about the actual copy that makes it into their listings from paid sponsors. All have various algorithms for checking ad copy on-the-fly to ensure it is beneficial for end-users, including bans on repeated words, excessive use of capital letters, the use of trademarked words and phrases. Additionally, Google has minimum click through rates that must be maintained (proof that the ad is useful) in order for the ads to continue to appear in listings.

"Advertisers are screened very carefully by our editors," explained Dana Baker, Overture's editor-in-chief. "We have 120 editors who spend all of their time reviewing advertisements and working with advertisers. Their backgrounds are diverse, including teachers, writers, people from the entertainment industry, journalists. Many have industry knowledge and expertise. We look at advertising from the users point of view and make it reflective of what they'll find when they click. We look at it from a relevance point of view: does the advertiser have the content to make it a relevant experience? And we look at the quality—is the listing well-written and not ‘salesy'? In particular, it is important to look at the landing page where people are taken to make certain it is detailed enough."

Yahoo!'s Braccia feels that ads are an important part of the mix. "A company would be doing a disservice if they didn't show sponsored matches to consumers within companies. We take a lot of pride in retaining the highest level of trust. We make certain that people understand what are Sponsored Matches. Based on the fact that we have high click-through rates with Sponsored Matches, we believe that it is valuable for consumers. The fact that users understand is less important than that they are satisfied."

Sullivan from Search Engine Watch sees it from the search engine's perspective. He says, "The hard thing is that search engines have a dual role, much like having editorial content and also a Yellow Pages function. Everyone knows that the big ads in the Yellow Pages are paid and they don't mind because the Yellow Pages are very useful for many people. Paid listings on search engines play the Yellow Pages model very well."

Companies Featured in This Article
FTC Letter To Search Engine Companies
Giga Information Group
Outsell, Inc.
Overdrive Marketing Communications
Search Engine Watch
Special Libraries Association

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