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, <explicative deleted> downright capricious, <explicative deleted> 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<expletive deleted>.

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