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Has SEM Jumped the Shark?


Jon Hein’s underground website, Jump the Shark, has become a mainstream destination for locating the defining the moment when a television program not only reaches its peak, but from that point on begins a downward spiral that spells the end of the show. It’s also a really neat way to describe other negatively defining moments in all kinds of circumstances.

It’s official. In a moment of journalistic hubris, Time magazine boiled all of search marketing down into a few words, located in a sidebar beside editorials for a weather clock and a how-to on videoconferencing. Time reported that you can now pay only $49 to have your site listed on Yahoo, while declaring the newly-announced program “drew criticism for blurring the line between advertising and legitimate search results.” LEGITIMATE SEARCH RESULTS?

Of all the ignorant, downright capricious, things to call an indexed paid inclusion listing! At the risk of sounding a bit like Ann Coulter, this is the kind of liberal-engorged media vomit that not long ago declared the internet a “threat to democracy.” With utmost certainty, we can expect a phalanx of attacks against the ultimate goals of efforts like paid inclusion: making search more relevant for the user and profitable for a website.

Brainwashing the Searcher

Sponsored listings are most certainly advertising, but would the person who promised that search results would be free of any form of private-sector funded listing content please step forward? Any opponent to indexing search results via a submission fee is ultimately suggesting that all search results be considered "free."

What a great idea!

While we are at it, let’s start smacking labels on every form of advertising ever conceived. Ever wonder why the ad for a new marvel widget in your favorite magazine appears next to a 4-page feature on said marvel widget? Can you imagine if every issue of your preferred rag had to disclose how many widgets were given to the editorial staff for testing” Or, how much Marvel Widgets Inc. paid for the layout? Couldn’t one draw a line from this practice to paying for placement or inclusion?

Elsewhere on the Web, let’s start labeling Internet yellow pages ad sections as such. Oh, wait -- they already do that and guess what? Those ad listing and logo sections experience some of the highest clickthrough rates and conversion activity of any ad on the Web. Users click because ads in the yellow pages are extremely relevant, by virtue of decades-old category and hierarchy standards. Lesson learned: in spite of paying, relevance rules.

Content, Listings and Malicious Deceit?

By now you have heard lots of buzz about the new Yahoo! program. I have heard it called many things in the two weeks since its announcement at Search Engine Strategies. But its foundation is a centralized approach for paid inclusion in post acquisition frenzy Yahoo!. In a nutshell, the program is designed to bring informational and commercial content to Web users while (hopefully) slowing the efforts of those who would spam search results.

The new Site Match program will replace the likes of Inktomi Search Submit, AltaVista Inclusion, and FAST, which all report into the same shareholder equity portfolio. Clearly, Yahoo! had a need for consistency in the execution of these programs. Each had its own pricing structure, and though the new program has both a cost per URL and cost-per-click structure, the consolidation actually shows a lower overall cost in comparison to the other programs.

Due to last year’s Consumer WebWatch activity regarding the unlabeled paid-inclusion format, the new program is bound to show up as a large blip on the FTC’s radar. In defense of Yahoo!, disclosures are provided in plain English on the site for anyone who might want to see how listings are prepared. In short, sponsored listings are from Overture, Web results are provided by Overture’s site match or Inktomi (until April 15) and paying for inclusion has “no bearing on placement or ranking in search results.” Also noteworthy in this disclosure is Yellow Pages content’s paid status.

Site Match Does What?

Never has there been a louder call to get site content up to speed with strategic objectives. Relevance and a content rich environment are the keys to effectively complementing optimization and paid placement with inclusion. Here’s a breakdown of the key areas:

  • Slurp Interaction: Sounding like a Howard Stern skit, Yahoo!’s Slurp crawler started indexing websites last month and many advertisers want to know how indexes will affect the inclusion initiative. According to Yahoo, the two systems operate independently, i.e. one does not affect the other.

  • Search Spam: High on the to-do lists of search sites is the effort to circumvent activities by ill-motivated optimizers who seek to fill search results with their own irrelevant information. Like the Google Dance, Yahoo’s ranking system inherently places relevancy and content high on the list to thwart efforts of spammers by charging that cost-per-click. Unlike the Google Dance, Yahoo! appears to be opening the kimono (see below) on the search theorem.

  • Dynamic Content: If the information on your site never changes and your Slurp ranking rocks, skip inclusion. However, if you have thousands of product pages and your message to the world changes daily, hourly or weekly, then buy, buy and buy. The new program is specifically designed to provide users with a better search experience be it fast moving content or old dusty pages.

  • Human Interaction: The biggest element of mystery is Yahoo!’s thought process behind the human review and how it could affect listing positions. Yahoo has made repeated public statements relating to their commitment to quality and relevance over dollars invested, but it remains to be seen how this x-factor may inhibit or enhance listing positions.

  • Back End Disclosure: Yahoo! plans to provide best practices for listing-positioning efficiency in both indexed and inclusion results. This is a very bold move, since Google’s system of ranking is quite the Web secret. Of course, any best practice provided by Yahoo! will be Yahoo! centric, rather than a more globally-sound approach. If ever a case could be made for setting universal standards, this is it. A unified approach wouldn't homogenize Web search crawls, but it would certainly help legitimate optimizers.

Cognitive Dependency Realization

So what’s the best way to make certain SEM hasn't jumped the shark? The biggest problem with search results is that clicking requires thought and a decision-making process. If mainstream media begin to pollute the minds of users, contrasting paid inclusion listings and natural results with words like “legitimate,” we’ll not only see more letters from the FTC, we may be forced to experience label multiplicity like “sponsored,” “nearly sponsored," “quasi sponsored,” “meta optimized” and “certified 100 percent organic… we think,” thereby stifling the process of creating, refining and delivering a better search experience.

The click decision making process will be so confusing and complicated users may just abandon labels altogether and do what they have always done, click on the most relevant listing.

About the author: iMedia search columnist Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Needless to say, Kev is a big Ann Coulter fan. Not because he believes everything she says, but because she is a bright articulate person with little or no tolerance for bull.

Meet Kevin Ryan at Ad:Tech May 24-26th, 2004, and the iMedia Learning Search Roadshow.

Social bookmarking and recommendation
Community users submit links to content and resources around the web to share with their peers.

Manage multiple social networks
These tools allow users to connect various different social networks and remotely control the sites (at least the status updates) from a single location.

Manage Twitter
Third party Twitter tools (called "Twitter clients") can provide more features and higher functionality than Twitter. These tools are generally used by power users with multiple accounts.

Monitor profiles
Use these tools to get important information and stats on users various social network accounts.

Search the social networks
These tools help users tap into real-time, keyword driven results on various social network platforms. 

Research and data monitoring tools
These tools help tap into the social media universe to build insights mainly used for media planning

Check the buzz and monitor reputations
These tools allow users to set up alerts to see what is being said about themselves and others in the social sphere.

Social analytics
These tools can help users to measure their impact in the social sphere with unique metrics and data -- thereby revealing the elusive ROI. 

Facebook tab creation
These tools allow users to build professional, engaging Facebook tabs from easy templates with such features as contests, photo galleries, surveys and polls, coupon servers, etc.

Twitter advertising

Facebook ad management
Facebook advertising is now the No. 1 banner distribution source, with almost one third of all banner ads on the web! Use these tools to plug in to the FB self-service platform with increased functionality and optimization capability. Here is the big list officially approved by Facebook.

Social advertising platforms
Social advertising is not just Twitter and Facebook. Find advertising opportunities on other relevant sites

Social targeting
Work with these vendors to buy online display media impressions that are targeted to the social connections of your best customers.

Social advertising ad units
Embed deep social network integration into your digital advertising creative such as like buttons, polls, surveys, etc. Research has shown that in some cases, social context in advertising can give boosts to engagement metrics.

Social sharing widgets
We've all seen the small widgets next to content all around the web that allows visitors to immediately share to dozens of social networks and bookmarking sites. This is a no-brainer for publishers -- studies have shown that pages with this functionality get shared many more times than ones that don't.

Community outreach
Find and build relationships with influential bloggers and other social content creators to help get the word out about your brand (with full transparency to the users).

Blog platforms
These (mostly) free platforms enable users to create their own blog in minutes.

  • WordPress.com is one of the foundation pillars of bloggers around the world. There are literally thousands of plugins and themes built by the community that users can utilize to build in many engaging features and functionalities to their blog.

  • Blogger.com

  • Typepad.com 

  • Zooshia.com enables users to create widgets.

  • TwitterFeed allows users to feed their blog to Twitter, Facebook, etc.

  • Apture

  • OnlyWire let users auto-submit blogs to multiple social bookmark sites simultaneously.

  • Feedcompare allows users to compare blogs.

Discover blogs
Nowadays, discovering a blog is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. These blog search engines can help to uncover interesting content that might otherwise be missed.

Media relations
These tools help uncover the most important media folks engaged in social.

Twitter is the most well-known micro-blogging tool by far. These platforms offer one-to-one or many-to-one communication in tiny bursts.

RSS readers
RSS stands for "really simple syndication." RSS allows content creators to publish their blogs or other media in an "always on" stream.

Podcast directories
Use these directories to discover and download interesting podcasts.

URL shorteners
URL shorteners are simple tools useful for Twitter users who need all the character space they can get (or for users who want a simplified URL). Some of these tools also track clicks so users can see how often others actually visit the content that's been shared with them.

Content aggregators
Content aggregators aid users in crafting seemingly new content instantly using automation tools. These tools curate content from various social sources and repurpose it into new, aggregated streams.

Photo sharing
Photo sharing platforms often include handy tools to manage image files -- including permission based systems for making sure only certain folks have access to specific groups of photos.

Video sharing

Video tools

Username checking tools
These tools help users identify usernames that have already been taken.

I'll apologize know as I've most assuredly left out a good number of very promising social media tools from this list. I've also probably miscategorized some of these as well because many of these tools solve multiple solutions and could appear under five or more categories. Feel free to highlight my ignorance in the comments section below.

Josh Dreller is VP of media technology and analytics at Four Digital

On Twitter? Follow Josh Dreller at @mediatechguy. Follow Four digital at @fuordigital.  Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Editor's note: The sole intent of this article is to inform users of their options -- neither the author nor iMedia Connection endorses these products.  Please take caution with any site that requires users to share personal information, logins, or payment information.

Kevin Ryan founded the strategic consulting firm Motivity Marketing in April 2007. Ryan is known throughout the world as an interactive marketing thought leader, particularly in the search marketing arena. Today's Motivity is a group of...

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