Paying for Popularity

 
 
By Jim Rapoza  |  Posted 2004-11-22
 
 
 

Things have been pretty confusing around here lately while Ive been trying to get my column topics in order.

What with all the fallout from the recent "ELECTION RESULTS" and the continuing "WAR in IRAQ," I sometimes feel like Im stuck in a catfight between "BRITNEY SPEARS," "PARIS HILTON" and "CARMEN ELECTRA." Im not sure what I can do to clear my head. Maybe I should go to a movie such as "THE INCREDIBLES."

Dont mind me. I was just trying to come up with a way to get my columns to appear in more searches and be scored higher in those searches.

But, come to think of it, I dont really need to go to all this trouble and all these contortions of prose and logic. All I need to do is follow the same path that most companies and commercial Web sites do when they want to score high in Web searches—namely, pay the search engines to rank my stuff high no matter how relevant it is to actual search queries.

I can see it already: Whenever people search for anything remotely technology-related, right there, at the top of the returned results, will be "Jim Rapoza, Tech Directions." But which search engine should I pick? And do I go with paid inclusion or paid placement?

With paid inclusion, my pages will appear with all the rest of the search results and wont be marked clearly as ads, but Im not guaranteed the pages will be ranked high. With paid placement, I know the pages will be right at the top of the results, but Ill be in a roped-off "paid" area, and people may not click on my links.

Click here to read about the debate over the fairness and relevancy of paid search.

The best option would be one that kind of hides the fact that some results are actually paid placements. Theres one problem, though: In a letter to search engine companies, the Federal Trade Commission stated that paid placements should be clearly and conspicuously distinguished from "actual" search results. Thats how we ended up with those roped-off paid results areas.

But, luckily, most search engines have tried to make this area as inconspicuous as possible. First, they pretty much all refer to these paid placement results as "sponsored" results, which sounds much nicer than "These sites paid to be up here."

And some sites make things a little less obvious than others.

On Google, most paid placements are placed to one side of the results page, where they are pretty obviously not regular results. However, many other search sites—including AltaVista and InfoSpace—put their paid placement results at the top of the results page, and if users arent paying much attention, they can mistake these paid results as legitimate results.

According to a study by Consumer WebWatch (available at www.consumerwebwatch.org/news/ paidsearch/finalreport.pdf), many users do fall prey to this intentionally confusing placement, especially novice and less savvy Web users. Lucky for me and my columns!

Click here to read more about the Consumer WebWatch study.

Better yet, when people use a meta-search tool such as Copernicus or a site that combines results from multiple search engines such as WebSearch, most of the information that would show that a search result was paid goes away. So my results would then be in like Flynn among legitimate results.

Some of you may be thinking that this whole thing stinks. Like many business users of the Web, part of your job (or, in some cases, all of your job) depends on being able to find useful information on the Web using these search engines. Every time you go to a site that shouldnt have been in a search result in the first place, it costs you time. And, as we all know, time is money.

I wouldnt be surprised if a bunch of you decided to start letting the search engines know that this kind of practice is unacceptable. I also wouldnt be shocked if some of you decided to drop letters of complaint to the FTC.

But I understand that you have to break some eggs to make an omelet. And, right now, Im hankering for a Jim Rapoza Tops All Searches omelet.

Hmm. It turns out that I dont have the monetary resources to guarantee paid search engine placement.

I think Ill just turn on the TV and watch "THE O.C." Hey, look, its another "VIAGRA" ad.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at jim_rapoza@ziffdavis.com.

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