Search Tangles

Pay for Play

One search engine practice that's become controversial in recent years is called paid inclusion. Because even the best search engines can't index the entire Internet, some--namely Yahoo and Ask Jeeves--allow Web site owners to pay a small fee to guarantee that their site will be included in the search engine's index. However, both firms insist paid submissions don't affect search rankings.

Google doesn't accept paid submissions. You can submit a site to Google for free, but there's no guarantee as to when or if the site will be added to Google's index.

Ask Jeeves' Site Submit program for its Ask.com search engine charges a one-time fee of $30 for the first page submitted and $18 for each subsequent page. A disclaimer next to Ask.com's search results says that some sites have paid to be indexed.

In March Yahoo rolled out its Site Match Exchange paid-inclusion program. Participants pay a $49 annual fee for the first URL, $29 per page for the next nine URLs, and $10 per page thereafter to guarantee not only that those pages will be indexed but that they will be recrawled (Web jargon for reindexed) every 48 hours, compared with a schedule of up to a month for nonpaying sites. Participants can fine-tune content with the latest products and prices, and they can ensure that their site is completely indexed (search engines normally index only up to 1000 pages per crawl, even on a large site--and they do not index a site's searchable databases at all).

Illustration: Gordon Studer
But there's more: Participating sites must also pay Yahoo between a few pennies and 30 cents every time a user clicks on a search result link to the site. (Yahoo allows major nonprofits to participate for free; the per-click fee structure varies for larger Web sites such as PCWorld.com, which participates in Site Match.)

Site Match's impact on search results is highly debated. Critics--and even some supporters--believe participating sites are more likely to rank high in Yahoo's results than nonparticipants. But Keith Boswell, chief operating officer for Marketleap, a marketing firm that resells Site Match, says, "The more quality content you have in your Web site, the more likely [it] will be relevant and rise higher in search results."

Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a nonprofit dedicated to keeping commercial and public interests separate, says programs like Site Match make "moneyed interests" more visible in Yahoo's search results than smaller firms that can't afford to pay for premium indexing. Ruskin believes that, as more companies pay so as to compete with Site Match customers, Yahoo's search engine will become little more than a searchable yellow pages directory masquerading as unbiased, noncommercial Web search results.

Search engine companies bristle at the notion that their search results are tainted by money. A Yahoo representative said that Yahoo's quality speaks for itself. "People wouldn't return to Yahoo if they didn't trust us," she said.

Similar to Ask Jeeves, Yahoo displays a "What's this?" link (just above the search results area) that goes to a disclaimer stating that about 1 out of every 100 sites in its index has paid to be included. But several other sites that use Yahoo's search results--including Dogpile.com, Excite.com, and MSN--do not display such a disclaimer.

MSN, however, plans to end its relationship with Yahoo and implement its own search technology. In the meantime, MSN and Ask Jeeves both say they plan to more clearly identify Yahoo-produced paid and commercial listings.

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