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Paid search? It stinks

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper warns that in a pell-mell rush to bolster business, certain myopic executives are subverting one of the best things about the Internet: free search.

Anyone who hates the idea of schlepping to the downtown library to research information as much as I do must have been delighted by the arrival of the Internet.

Sitting at home or in the office, you could simply type in a word or phrase and, more often than not, come up with amazingly good search results. As far as convenience went, this even beat the invention of free pizza delivery.

That was before certain bright bulbs came up with the idea of featuring paid listings, or so-called link sponsorship, when users accessed directory search results. With paid listings, a company essentially sells placement to advertisers, whose product listings then appear at the top of the results page.

Eureka! A sure-fire way to finally make some dough, and in the aftermath of the dot-com advertising swoon, that sounded awfully good to battered Internet portal operators who had been betting their future on securing more big CPM-based deals for banner ads. The mugwumps predictably dismissed the idea of commercialized search, but the smarter set recognized what was going on and they eagerly grabbed what was undeniably low-hanging fruit.

And after a slow and controversial start, for-fee search is now all the rage. Overture, formerly known as GoTo.com, is the best-known practitioner. The company, which has now signed up some 50,000 advertisers, has been in the black for several consecutive quarters. It's a considerable achievement, especially when you consider that Overture is nothing more than a site chockablock with links!

America Online, Microsoft and AltaVista subsequently got on board. Yahoo, which was the last major holdout, jumped on the paid-search bandwagon last month.

So this is the future of the Internet? Maybe, but my purist protest is that this would be a terrific loss to us folks who have come to depend on search as a regular part of our online routines. The MBAs in the peanut gallery muttering, "No harm, no foul," counter that this is simply a more effective way of doing business than the CPM-based model, where the cost of acquiring new customers is much higher. And besides, they add, what's wrong with a company looking to diversify their revenues?

It all depends on how they go about it. For instance, the sale of porn links is highly lucrative, but most portals shy away because of bad press. But they don't have the same reluctance to include paid search because--at least until now--the public reaction has remained muted.

So let me play the role of self-appointed rabble-rouser in hopes of kicking up a storm: The concept stinks to the high heavens.

I'll go further: The underlying assumption behind so-called sponsor matches on directory pages spits soot into the eyes of everybody who participated in this grand work-in-progress called the Internet.

Beyond the obvious questions fee-based search raises about the issue of trust and the Internet, Netizens should be deeply worried about the implications of the increasing value of the services that have helped spur the Internet's rapid growth. I wonder what's next on the agenda? Embedded links?

Also, one of the real joys of the Internet comes about when you chance upon some quirky site that you would never have heard about in a million years. At least, you would have in the free-search era. Now, I'm not so sure.

Proponents make the argument that this is all above board, and in any case, it doesn't subvert the idea of useful Internet searches. Moreover, they point to a recent Jupiter study reporting that people completed their tasks 50 percent faster when using search engines that had only paid placements. The logical inference here being that this made for more satisfied customers than those who relied on other search engines.

I don't dispute the undeniable reality of the post-dot-com era: Running an Internet company without any clear idea about how to turn a profit is pure folly. But this is pure myopia and the suits responsible for fee-based search have tipped the balance of power in favor of big advertisers--who can afford to bid for better placement--and have made it that much harder for average users to sort their way through the shills and hucksters.

Although the Web remains a great communications medium, I wonder if one day soon we'll wake up to find out that, yes, they did pave paradise and put up a parking lot. A fee-based parking lot.