Alternative Futures of Search
Clearly labeling links as paid or unpaid is a good start in letting users make up their own minds about how to find what they want.We all have come to take for granted the power, value and ease of Internet search. When we force ourselves to imagine anything other than free, comprehensive and unbiased access to relevant rankings of the Webs expanding resources, the prospect is unappealing. It may be unrealistic, though, to think that the present idyllic situation can last. Search has costs, and someone has to pay. We can hope, however, that lessons learned in other mediasuch as the clear distinction between editorial content and advertising in print newspaperswill be applied to Internet search with a minimum of painful rediscovery. At this months Search Engine Strategies Conference & Expo in New York, many alternative futures of search emerged, with credible advocates on both sides of the most critical divide: the one that separates the paid "Yellow Pages" approach from the unpaid "Web crawl" approach. On one side, Google shuns any taint of pay-to-play, at least for listings that are not marked as sponsored; on the other, Yahoo and Ask Jeeves each offer private toll roads into their listings for those who can pay the price of admission.
The argument is not a simple choice between idealist and mercenary positions. As any economist will remind us, every scarce goodincluding premium placement on a "hits" pagewill eventually command a price. The only question is whether that price is explicit, for example, a fee to ensure inclusion, or indirect, such as the development or purchase of reverse-engineered algorithms for "gaming" the page-ranking process.