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Is AltaVista searching for top dollar?

Though the company says it's an isolated mistake by a salesman, some say a recent pitch to buy top placement in search results speaks volumes about AltaVista's service and practices.

AltaVista is calling it an isolated mistake by a lone salesman. But some say a recent pitch to buy top placement in search results speaks volumes about the fast-and-loose commercialization of navigation tools.

On Sept. 19, an AltaVista salesman sent an e-mail to Web marketing consultant Andrew Goodman, offering his clients better placement on the search engine for a price--an offer that contradicts how the service is promoted to the public and raises broader questions about industry practices.

At issue is AltaVista's search technology and "paid-inclusion" programs, a service that allows marketers to pay to have their Web site addresses indexed more frequently, but without guarantee of improved ranking in the results. But one salesman in recent weeks billed the program to a potential customer as a way to break into the top three results pages or even likely the first.

"In this program we pick up your URLs each week and index them much higher than through standard submission," read an AltaVista pitch to Goodman seen by CNET News.com.

AltaVista spokeswoman Joanne Sperans Hartzell confirmed the authenticity of the e-mail but said it was an isolated misunderstanding on the part of one staff member who was new to selling the service.

"Inclusion participants' sites may be spidered more frequently in order to ensure that they are included in the global index, but this does not ensure higher placements," Hartzell wrote in an e-mail response to Goodman. "Any claims to the contrary are erroneous. AltaVista regrets any miscommunications made about its policies and is taking action to ensure that no such future claims are made on the company's behalf."

Even if isolated, the incident serves to highlight potential problems lurking in paid-inclusion programs, a gray area in search engine marketing, which are offered by nearly every search provider on the Web. Seen as a cousin of pay-for-placement listings, which are clearly marked as for sale, paid-inclusion results are murkily defined because marketers are often unsure of the effects of more regular indexing of their Web pages.

All of the search providers, including Inktomi, Fast Search and Transfer's AlltheWeb and AltaVista, say that the programs are an added service that can help create "fresher" results for product pages but that do not sway position or the system's integrity. Still, questions arise about the uprightness of paid-inclusion programs when search providers are under pressure to make profits and maintain customer loyalty during an economic downturn.

Paid inclusion results have already drawn controversy for Web operators' failure to disclose their commercial relationships. In recent months, the Federal Trade Commission fired off a letter to several top search providers, urging them to provide conspicuous labels for commercial search listings or face potential legal action. While many companies have responded by adding disclaimers next to search results, most notices are small and go unread.

Search engine marketing is garnering more attention on all fronts because it has emerged as one of the bright spots in the beleaguered Web advertising industry. As many Net ad companies or publishers have gone under in the past two years, pay-for-placement search providers such as Overture Services have taken flight, largely because cost-conscious marketers pay only for results and because search results provide a direct link to consumers when they're looking for something specific.

Turning results into revenue
Under pressure to stay afloat, Web portals and search providers have caught on to Overture's formula in one way or another, by giving marketers multiple ways to buy into their pages and databases or by simply aligning with Overture. Online portal MSN, for example, provides a combination of paid listings from Overture, LookSmart and Inktomi on any given results page.

AltaVista, a former high-flier in search and Web services, joined the fray last year by turning search results into a revenue opportunity. In June 2001, the company started introducing programs for marketers to pay for faster Web address submission. This year, it inked a deal with Overture to display pay-for-performance links next to its regular search results.

Goodman, who runs Toronto-based Page Zero Media, said that many of his clients are more comfortable with pay-for-placement programs like those of Overture and Google, because the results are more clearly defined. Such search providers allow companies to bid for placement in listings related to certain keywords and pay only when visitors click on their links. With paid-inclusion programs, AltaVista and others allow companies such as Amazon.com to feed more than 1,000 Web addresses into their database on a regular basis for a set price, with a cost-per-click fee included. Many times this cost-per-click fee is not disclosed upfront, but in notices buried on the site.

"The whole thing is designed to be a bit squishy," said Goodman. "Saying they'll spider your pages every 48 hours is not going to make people fall over themselves to be updated.

"The average corporation is confused enough (about search engine marketing) and if it's left as a gray area, assuming that they'll get higher indexing, then they're more likely to pay for it."

Still, ask any paid-inclusion search provider, and they will tell you that the ranking is unaffected.

"As is the case with other search engine inclusion programs, participation in AltaVista's inclusion programs simply guarantees frequent spidering and inclusion in the index--not position," said Hartzell.