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By Matthew Hicks  |  Posted 2004-03-03

Paid Inclusion Under Fire at Search Engine Shindig

NEW YORK—The debate over the fairness and relevancy of paid search spilled onto the stage at the Jupitermedias Search Engine Strategies 2004 conference here on Wednesday.

On one side: Google Inc., which objects to any commingling of paid search with its Web index. On the other: Yahoo Inc., which embraced this week a program for letting Web sites pay to be included in its recently launched Web index.

And in the middle: Ask Jeeves Inc., which has dropped one paid program, where Web sites could provide XML feeds into its index, while maintaining another for paying to submit sites for crawling.

The varying positions demonstrate the evolving field of Web search. The battle to deliver the most relevant results, and to make money, has intensified now that Yahoo has switched from Googles search results to its own technology and as Microsoft Corp. builds its own technology.

The latest shift was Ask Jeeves discontinuation of its Index Express program for direct XML feeds into its Teoma search engine index. Paul Gardi, Ask Jeeves senior vice president of operations and planning, said the company was not denouncing the practice of paid inclusion but dropped that form because it didnt return relevant results for users.

"It really is critical if you put information in the index that it is found in a relevant way," he said. "That method of paid submission was not meeting that requirement."

Ask Jeeves, of Emeryville, Calif., is continuing its Site Submit program, where sites pay to guarantee that their pages get crawled, Gardi said.

But Google and Yahoo, in a far-reaching panel discussion here on the future of search, did stake out clear opinions on whether Web sites should be able to pay to ensure their pages are indexed.

Home decorating retailer sues Google over keyword-based advertising practices, search algorithms and Web index. Click here to read more.

Google will continue to ban any paid inclusion into its Web search index, said Craig Silverstein, Googles director of technology, which drew applause from the audience. The Mountain View, Calif., company follows a strict division between its advertising business for sponsored search links and its ranking of regular results, he said.

"Its hard to be sure that the end result of the algorithm would be the same and that everyone is being treated fairly," Silverstein said of allowing paid inclusion.

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Yahoos goal with its new paid inclusion program is to gather more content for its index, and the company maintains an "iron wall" between the paid service and its algorithmic relevancy rankings, said Tim Cadogan, Yahoos vice president of search.

"It has no relevance at all on the relevancy algorithm," he said.

Yahoo, of Sunnyvale, Calif., is trying to eliminate "the enormous guessing game" played by Web sites trying to make sure that search engines regularly crawl their pages, Cadogan said.

The debate over paid inclusion points to a larger problem plaguing search engines—the increase in spam-like results from sites using sometime unscrupulous methods for ranking high in specific searches, said Gerry Campbell, vice president and general manager of America Online Inc.s search and navigation efforts.

AOL does not operate its own search-engine crawler or index, instead partnering to use Googles Web results as well as its paid sponsored links. AOL, of Dulles, Va., signed a new deal with Google in October.

"The elephant in the room is that purely algorithmic results are subject to spam," he said. "We also have very real problems where some results are not good enough."

Campbell said search engines need to find a way to balance the concerns around paid inclusions and "objectively and transparently" increase relevancy, or they risk turning Web users away.

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