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Friday, April 16, 2010

A Brief History of 'Paid Inclusion' Search Results

In 2000, a company named GoTo.com offered the first paid search inclusions. GoTo.com signed Netscape and AOL (the latter of which would one day buy the former), among others. While purists balked, GoTo dismissed its detractors, saying they were like the Yellow Pages for the Web, and those who paid more got better placement. GoTo eventually became Overture.

One year later, every major search engine offered paid inclusions, and lauded Overture's advertising initiative.

Prior to this, search engines were used, by webmasters and Web scholars, as much to determine a site's relevancy as to find information. Google still tries to maintain this, to a lesser extent these days, with Google PR (Page Rank), but Google PR does not work. Google executives blame sponsored posts and "black hat" SEO tactics, but Google executives only ever take credit for the things they get right; the truth is that Google's famed algorithm just is not up to snuff, and their attack on bloggers who sell sponsored posts cost them dearly, where relevance is concerned.

Further, Google owns a lot of the Web, and the bottom-line here is that Google wants to make money off the entire Web. Like it or lump it, that's the bottom-line: Google wants a piece of the action - wherever, whatever, and however, that action is. While it now has several revenue streams, Google made its money from paid inclusions and advertisements placed alongside its results. Paid inclusions made Google rich - to the tune of nearly $40bn annually - so...

At any rate, this new advertising model gave birth to the SEO "movement," if you will. Enterprising young Webheads began offering Search Engine Optimization services as early as 2001; roughly a decade later, SEO is an established practice of webmasters the world over. But early attempts caused a lot of damage to the inherent structure of the Web, just as early opponents had predicted.

META data, such as KEYWORDS, was meant to make information (webpages) easier to sort and find. Remember, prior to 1998, Web directories were the closest thing to search engines that we had; KEYWORDS were meant to help search engines more than humans - to automate the processes of that famous "algorithm" on which Google should choke. All this SEO eventually forced search engines to ignore the META data on most webpages, resulting in the obvious: Less relevant search results... except for paid inclusions, which always received placement commensurate to the amount the company had paid.

It is only in recent years that KEYWORDS have started making their way back into the search engine model, and that is because webdesigners, like myself, insist on including them. They are important, necessary, and abuse is pretty easy to spot. But I'm not tooting my own horn; a lot of people were put-out with the search engines' paid results and their superior attitude toward both netizens, and passive Web users, alike.

In 2002, Commercial Alert - a consumer advocacy group - filed a complaint with the FTC, claiming paid results were not clearly demarcated, and thus constituted "deceptive advertising." The FTC agreed not to take action, so long as the search engines voluntarily changed their ways. By 2004, 30% of the results returned from search engine aggregator, Dogpile, were still sponsored results, but were clearly labeled as such, according to Find It Online, 4th-Ed., published that same year.

These days, sponsored results are so common that most searchers simply look past them, but search engine relevancy is still so poor that many sponsored returns actually are the best result. I am not claiming that this is intentional; quite the opposite: Search engines are simply lacking, and Google leads the way.

There certainly isn't anything wrong with a little SEO, nor is there anything wrong with advertising, but I hope this brief history of sponsored search better explains why I am against Google's stance on sponsored posting, and pretty much everything else.

While Google did not invent SEO, or paid inclusions, or search - Google has never invented anything, they just acquire - they certainly jumped on that bandwagon fast and hard and rode it to the very end. For them to punish webmasters and content providers, such as myself - those of us who actually create the Web - for wanting a small return on our work, is literally tantamount to saying, "We want to hire you, but we aren't going to pay you in any shape, form, or fashion, nor will we credit you in any way, and everything you produce will belong to us simply because we lay claim to it."

Which is tantamount to slavery.

© C Harris Lynn, 2010

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