The Ask Jeeves agreement with BitTorrent could be one of those moments, signifying a change where "education" and "transparency" evolve from buzzwords to differentiators.
You're familiar with Ask Jeeves, the top-five search engine that Barry Diller's InterActiveCorp agreed to acquire. BitTorrent isn't yet a household word, but it's well on its way in following on the heels of Napster and Kazaa, both in terms of utility and notoriety. BitTorrent is the name of a file-sharing protocol, a five-person company behind it, and now a search engine.
As I write this, there are 48 articles referencing BitTorrent on Wired.com, compared with seven at NYTimes.com and MediaPost, and five at WSJ.com. According to Intelliseek's BlogPulse Trend Search, over the past two months, references to BitTorrent appeared on between .01 and .03 percent of all blog posts. At the end of May, it spiked to between .07 and .08 percent. In short, the geeks and bloggers are taking notice, but the business press is just starting to catch on.
In that BitTorrent is a file-sharing protocol, it's fairly easy to use to find copyright-protected materials. Last week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement shut down EliteTorrents.org, which used the BitTorrent protocol for enabling file sharing. Elite Torrents attracted over 133,000 members, and when the latest "Star Wars" movie was uploaded six hours before its theatrical debut, it was copied more than 10,000 times. Check the Elite site; it's not every day you see an official crackdown in action, complete with government agency seals. BitTorrent, the company, has no direct connection to this.
BitTorrent can, of course, be used for more benevolent purposes, like distributing freeware, self-generated content, and non-copyrighted materials. The protocol is a new evolution of file sharing that involves distributed processing, where someone downloading a file is also uploading parts of it to others.
Now, BitTorrent is positioning itself as a search engine, supported by paid search ads syndicated by Ask Jeeves.
Say someone visits the BitTorrent search engine to look for a version of the film "Sideways." Typing "sideways" into Ask.com brings up a sponsored result for a wine retailer. When someone types "sideways" into Ask.com, that person might want to buy the DVD, find photos of Sandra Oh, buy or download the screenplay, read reviews, or engage in hundreds of other possible actions. When someone types "sideways" into BitTorrent, they want a file, and in this case, the odds of the seeker wanting a copyrighted file are pretty high.
Would that retailer want their ad appearing next to a search for what is most likely going to result in the illegal copying of copyrighted materials?
This isn't to create a scare. Douglas Adams said it best: "Don't panic." Yet this underscores the need for greater education.
In Wired's May 23 article "Next for BitTorrent: Search," writer Kevin Poulsen quotes Ask Jeeves spokesperson Darcy Cobb: "Ask Jeeves syndicates our advertising products to many different sites, and BitTorrent will be one of them." Yes, that's true. All the major search engines syndicate their results, but how reassuring is this, especially when marketers lack control over where their ads appear?
Let's compare this with another recent example. In the May 17 Search Insider, "Here's Looking at You, Search," we looked at Grokker.com, a search engine displaying results as bubbles on a graphical field, with Yahoo! sponsored results alongside. Grokker's about as non-controversial as sites get, yet most marketers aren't aware that their ads are running there. Regardless of where the ads appear, search engines tend to offer little control. Google is rolling out Site Targeting - for its contextual image ad network, not for search.
There will be many factors driving the growth of search over the next several years, including local, international, multimedia, and personalized search. Some factors are even more important: educating marketers, earning their trust, delivering on promises, and caring for their brands. None of that materially affects stock prices or earnings announcements day to day, but those intangibles could determine the most successful search engines, agencies, technology companies, and other players as this industry matures.
What marketers don't know won't kill them, but it could scare them. Be transparent. Inform. Open up control. Teach your marketers well.