AltaVista and the truth about 'paid-for' search

Did the salesman act alone?

Did the salesman act alone?

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 commercialisation of navigation tools.

On 19 September, an AltaVista salesman sent an email 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 website 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.

AltaVista spokeswoman Joanne Sperans Hartzell confirmed the authenticity of the email 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 email 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.

Stefanie Olsen writes for News.com

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