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 media—such as the clear distinction between editorial content and advertising in print newspapers—will 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 good—including premium placement on a "hits" page—will 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.

We believe a good place to begin is to clearly label results. Indeed, the Federal Trade Commission issued guidelines for search-result presentation in June 2002, but an independent assessment last year by Search Engine Journal found several search sites—including HotBot, Teoma and Yahoo—sailing close to the wind when it came to clear labeling of paid versus unpaid links. We believe that any drift in the direction of deception needs to be halted before it becomes the norm.

We dont believe that search is a natural monopoly, and we urge dominant Internet gatekeepers not to try to own the function but to accept and relish competition. Users must have the flexibility to seek satisfaction on their own terms rather than being forced to conform their searches to any single site designers point of view. Portals, defined and managed by the worlds next generation of editors in chief, should be a growth business—and every portal should include its own form of search, incorporating knowledge of concepts and relationships in particular topics and tasks.

Free competition will tend to make search offerings more diverse, as every manner of content provider seeks to become the starting point of a users journey instead of just hoping to be the destination. In that progression, we say, let the games continue under accurate labels that let users make up their own minds about how to find what they want.

eWEEK is interested in your opinion. Send your comments to