From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

December 28, 2001*: Seek and Ye Shall Buy.

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 Sites
Managing Paid Placement Listings
Purchasing Paid Placement Listings, and
Converting Visitors Into Buyers
In 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.

So today, shopping seems to be a central purpose of using the web, and an attempt to sell has become a totally valid reason for building a site. And that being the case, being met head-on with the hard sell has become a built-in part of the search experience. Charging for placement now makes sense because so much of the web has become inherently oriented toward purchasing. Paid Placement, rather than being an imposition on the untainted search for "pure" information (whatever that is), has become, perhaps, the information that we're really looking for.

The seeking of information for the sake of finding information (letting the cat out of the bag, let's call it "making the web relevant to educational needs") may now be on the verge of becoming little more than a by-product of the quest for continual consumption. Being a by-product doesn't mean that it's not a respectable use, only that it doesn't really play a significant role in the larger picture. It's as though the quaint idea of the joy of finding interesting information has been relegated to a nature reserve that the business-coms that more or less rule the internet have set up for us, or more accurately, have left untouched for the poor natives. Pure and unadulterated information (though of course I admit that I doubt that there really is such a thing) becomes, in this metaphor, air pockets in the deep sea of internet-based commerce. Since these pockets aren't really harmful, the rulers of the sea have no particular reason to devote effort to closing them off. Thus it happens that we're allowed to thrive in our own small corners. I can't say that I really mind being painted into a corner, but I have to admit that those pockets or corners are becoming smaller and tighter.

I'm frequently (perhaps constantly) critical of internet trends. But who am I supposed to complain to in this particular case? Is anyone to blame for the fact that companies want to make themselves visible on the web? Perhaps the opposite is the case, and they should be praised for making use of the medium. And let's not forget that they're not only making themselves visible - other users are actively seeking them out.

A relatively recent article on the paid placement phenomenon quotes one of the sources that I frequently read. In what seems to be an incredibly upfront and in your face fashion, Danny Sullivan, of Search Engine Watch told a searching tools workshop audience: ''It's getting harder to identify a pure search engine''. He seems to be most definitely right. Pay Per Click, a site devoted to cashing in on the need and/or desire for higher placement in search results explains, on its site, the economic basis for the renewed interest in schemes of this sort:
Pay per click search engines have been around for several years, with (formerly 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.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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