I try to keep up to date with what's happening with search engines. I subscribe to at least three free newsletters that bring me news both on technical and business developments related to these engines, and I'm always on the lookout for improvements in search functions that will make my online life easier, more productive, and more enjoyable. I've subscribed to these newsletters for rather lenghty periods of time, and I suppose that my interest is subject to a rather natural curve: at first I read them avidly, then sort of wonder why it is that they clutter my inbox, and then establish a sort of modus vivendi of experienced use - basically highly selective reading. Thus it happens that although my own personal use of these engines doesn't change much, I'm aware of the behind the scenes changes. And what I learn is that nobody seems to be designing search tools with me in mind.
These are hard economic times, and search engines aren't in the business only to make my searches more effective - they want to make money as well. And as we've written numerous times in these columns, information for information's sake, for the pure joy of finding something interesting, isn't what makes money. What does is apparently (and not surprisingly) purchasing.
So there's nothing new in the fact that search engines are trying to make a sale. Perhaps the best known of these attempts was when AltaVista introduced the possibility of paying for high ranking in search results. This was known as "Relevant Paid Links". When this scheme was introduced, two and a half years ago, it apparently met with so much heavy criticism (though I doubt that mine had much effect) that is was discontinued. Today, though to me the idea remains distasteful, judging from the comeback the idea seems to be enjoying, that original scheme seems almost prophetic.
There seems little doubt that a full-blown comeback is in the works. The online E-Commerce Times, for instance, recently devoted an article to the topic, primarily referring to Yahoo's Sponsor Match scheme. And what a difference a couple of years make. What once met with flak now barely merits a whimper of protest. The basic response seems to be "why shouldn't it be possible to buy high ranking in search results?". And actually, it's a valid question, the answer to which seems to depend on just what it is you're looking for, or why you turn to a search engine in the first place.
But it's not only the search engines who are getting in on the act. Workshops and conferences now abound that teach webmasters of sites of companies how to design those sites in order to increase their chances of showing up high on a list of results (for something related to what they do). It's easy to get a feel for the topics to be discussed at a conference such as this. The planners of the Spring, 2002 Search Engine Strategies Conference, have posted the agenda for their conference. From it we can learn that the topics to be discussed include:
Designing Search Engine Friendly SitesIn other words, if in the past web sites were designed for the dissemination of information, with the rather naive hope that in some better mousetrap fashion web surfers would somehow find their way to your site, today the competition for bringing potential buyers to your site is fierce, and worth paying to learn to do it right.
Managing Paid Placement Listings
Purchasing Paid Placement Listings, and
Converting Visitors Into Buyers
Pay per click search engines have been around for several years, with Overture.com (formerly GoTo.com) being the most well-known. But their popularity as web site promotion tools is growing rapidly as it becomes increasingly difficult to achieve good listing positions on the various free search engines.And of course there's (at least) yet another possible interpretation of all this - one that I admittedly don't particularly want to acknowledge, but it is rather simple. Maybe the distinction between information and consumption is actually an artificial distinction. Maybe there's nothing the matter with seeking information for the purpose of buying something, and maybe it's the desire to acquire something that actually makes people seek out information. Seen in this perspective, the successful return of the idea of paid placement, and the general conversion of search engines into virtual malls is a vindication of consumerism. Perhaps, rather than being tricked into becoming compulsive buyers, deep down even the most avid seekers of pure information actually sense that buying really can buy happiness. And if that's the case, my criticism of recent internet trends has been barking up the wrong tree.
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