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The Search Engine Wars Begin

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Search Engine Watch editor Danny Sullivan’s Keynote speech yesterday was entitled “Search Wars.”

The Death Star in the Search Wars was none other than the reigning search champion Google, with the Rebel Forces of Yahoo and other engines now entering the scene.

Sullivan is pleased with this, saying, “I like diversity in search engines.”

Each search engine has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Discuss these advantages with e-Business professionals at WebProWorld.

“Yahoo has a great brand,” he said. People tend to think of Google when they think of search, but Yahoo has been a well-known namebrand since the beginning and the company has the ability to lock people in with its news, email, and personalization features.

Meanwhile, MSN has received a lot of hype, but Sullivan doesn’t believe Microsoft has entered the search engine wars yet. However, Microsoft already has a broad base of people using its Internet Explorer browser, which could provide the company with extra leverage and prove to be an advantage in the search engine wars.

America Online has a built-in browser and portal lock in on its users. “With AOL, we have the mother of all search bars,” he said.

AskJeeves only makes up for about 4% of searchers, but the company has a very strong search brand nonetheless.

He compared search engines to major television networks, drawing the parallel that even though there’s only a few search engines their reach is very broad. Even when e-Businesses find their rankings slipping on some engines, no one goes out of business overnight.

Following along with television model, his analogy relates niche players such as Gigablast to the cable television model. These niche players are typically smaller and run by fewer people. However, they are still very helpful to searchers and have each developed their own business models.

Google Confusion. Sullivan said his own company Search Engine Watch was started due to the amount of “Googlefusion,” or confusion about how to rank well in Google.

He said, “To some degree forget about Google and do what you think is best for humans.”

Luckily, in the world of search the “Googlopoly” has lessened. With its main competitor Yahoo moving towards transparency, there is pressure on Google to become more open with its users. He believes Google will eventually open up about its “mystery signals” – the signals Google currently uses to help determine page rank.

Despite this pressure, he says Google is clearly still working for searchers and webmasters alike. Google swept this year’s Search Engine Watch awards for Best Search Engine, among others.

An overview of the world of search. A recent survey indicated that relevancy, credibility, and fast results are more important qualities to search engine users than usability and branding.

Sullivan pointed out that you can’t buy your way into search. Search engines must build their brands through word of mouth and performance. Excite already tried buy its way into search engine popularity a few years ago through heavy television advertising – but instead Excite became an example of what not to do.

Another problem is the current technology barrier search engines face when crawling sites. MSN, for example, has spent the last two years developing its own crawler. Meanwhile, Google is constantly making updates to its algorithm.

Not all the players in the search engine war have the traffic for growth potential and even if they did, many wouldn’t be able to handle the amount of spam that would result. If you invite the world into your search engine, Sullivan warned, a very small population of people will go to the extremes.

It’s important to keep in mind that search results will never be static. e-Business owners must pay close attention to their rankings, page content, and advertising.

Things are Getting Personal. With more specialty search engines to come, personalization will divide the spam wars into a thousand different fronts. Look forward to more individual spam, he said.

Yahoo could have personalization at the flip of a switch, but he also pointed out that Google isn’t too far behind. The search giant could quickly gather lots of personal information about its users, especially through its new Orkut service, or by starting a mail service similar to Yahoo’s.

Personalize search raises some concerns among some people, especially those who don’t trust the search engines’ intentions. “Who knows what Microsoft know about us?” he asked, playing on the common belief that Microsoft is not a company to trust with personal information, causing the audience to respond with laughter.

He asked search engines to come up with a standard way of determining relevancy. Search engines should clarify scientifically and mathematically what is meant by the term “relevant.” Scientifically and mathematically show us.

That’s a great request!

The Trouble with Paid Inclusion. The free-loading web can expect to pay more as Yahoo dives into paid inclusion, he said. The term “free loading web,” which he got from an anonymous search executive, refers to site owners who get results through organic traffic.

Paid inclusion sends a mixed message. Searchers want fresh comprehensive data in the index while marketers believe paid inclusion is important for getting sites listed. With paid inclusion, sites are guaranteed listings, sites are listed quicker, and site owners can tell if they’ve been banned without a guessing game. However, users have to question whether the search engines with paid inclusion programs are offering comprehensive results.

He posed the question to Yahoo: is it possible to get rid of the free loading web while maintaining search relevancy? In order to make it clear to users which sites have paid for placements, he requested that Yahoo develop some way of indicating which sites in the search engine results pages are paid inclusion sites.

The latest buzz. He ended the session with a list of predictions for the world of search. Things we can expect:

  • Many professionals and experts alike have been predicting an upcoming rise in advertising costs.
  • A popular advertising concept is using a bucket model for bidding, which takes the research out of buying keywords by allowing advertisers to buy all the keywords for a given area that apply to their site. This relieves stress for site owners, who therefore don’t have to worry about whether or not they’re hitting every single keyword. Site owners can hit them all with one shotgun blast.
  • Watch for local advertising to come to Overture.
  • And finally, don’t worry: even though paid inclusion is growing in popularity, free listings won’t go away.
  • Share your thoughts on Danny Sullivan’s Keynote presentation at WebProWorld, your forum for e-Business news and information.

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