The Growing Battle Between Content & Commerce

by , Feb 10, 2005, 2:45 PM
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Have you ever attempted to conduct research online, only to be bombarded with search results that contain ads, product endorsements, and advertisements about a product seemingly related (possibly remotely) to the topic queried? Maybe you've even stumbled upon affiliate information, or were bombarded with banners that don't directly relate to your topic, but instead seem to fit a certain demographic. One thing is definitely certain. What you haven't found is what you're looking for - objective, credible, "non-commercial" information. And you keep asking yourself - isn't that what search engines are supposed to do?

Search engines, created initially as a way of sharing information between universities, first came on the scene in the early '90s. In fact, the first search engine (Archie) was developed by Alan Emtage and functioned as a way to match a file name with a specific query. Archie emerged as a database of Web filenames, which could then be matched to user queries. By December of 1993, the first bot-fed engines appeared online and the first Web-crawler to index complete pages (WebCrawler) went live in 1994. Carnegie Mellon University's Lycos, one of the earliest contemporary engines, emerged in July 1994, by containing an index of 54,000 documents and a search engine which hosted relevance-ranking retrieval, word-proximity and prefix-matching algorithms. From there, catalogue size continued to reach astronomical quantities, topping 60 million documents in 1996.

And so continues the evolution of today's search engine. More Web pages are available at our fingertips now than ever before - in fact Google alone boasts an index of over 4 billion Web documents. Additional commercial refinements including mobile search, rich media, behavioral targeting, localization, and geo-targeting, to name a few, continue to make the once inconceivable - a way to isolate and even predict a user's commercial needs - a reality.

A reality, yes, but has the search engine marketing industry forced search engines to stray too far from the search engine's original purpose and intent - to share information? If so, where does search go from here? The answer may be simple - customization of the search engine's infrastructure resulting in the formation of specialized search engines.

Targeted engines designed to index entities such as blogs or forums would lead users who seek consumer reviews, for example, to a consumer specific blog such as Epinions.com. Valuable information indeed, as a good consumer review may be more effective in swaying a prospective buyer than a generic banner ad. But is this the type of result that belongs on a traditional search results page? A search engine specific to this type of query would ensure that those who seek this information would find it, and those who do not want to be inundated with untargeted results, won't.

Many engines and directories host, to one degree or another, shopping "tabs" or services to facilitate the shopping process. Case in point, Google's "Froogle," is a service which separates retail information in such a manner that one can find reviews and product information online and then be directed to online stores that sell said product. Unfortunately, Google (as have other search engines) has not removed these results from traditional pages. By mitigating commercial options from traditional search pages, engines would be able to preserve the integrity and accuracy of the traditional (non-commercial) results that they have so vigorously tried to maintain.

Along with the technological advancements of the Search Industry, the saavy of the average Internet user has improved. In fact, according to Nielsen//NetRatings, 69 percent of the United States population are Internet users. It's time for engines to stop relying upon the sophistication of its users to provide the accurate results they seek. Frustrated by the difficult venture of wading through layers of banners, ads, and irrelevant content to find the topic at hand, I contemplate the search engine's evolutionary path and propose the inclusion of an easier way to convey information specific to user experience.

The segmentation of search engines into multiple, topic-specific engines would accomplish this feat by providing an enhanced user experience, ensuring them a way to find the desired information. Engines stand to benefit as well, as the financial incentives of paid keyword sets expanded across multiple topic-specific engines could be significant. Ultimately, both the user and the engine will be empowered by this prospect, with the integrity of search in tact and stronger still.

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