That's a conspiracy theory you shouldn't subscribe to. By following the money and the facts, you'll find there's both a reassuring conclusion and a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow.
After reading last week's column on Yahoo! Search Subscriptions and government-backed search engines, "Jamie" wrote in, "Yes, paid searches... that also remove the democratic element of the Internet. The only voices that will be heard will be the ones who can pay for it. No longer will merit (meaning content) drive the search, but the buck."
What made her comment especially timely was the media frenzy last week over Google's rumored online payments service. CEO Eric Schmidt ultimately said it won't rival PayPal, but every pundit seemed to take a stab at what Google might do with such a service, including: processing AdWords payments, creating an online wallet that can handle micropayments to access subscription content, and enabling direct sales of goods through its online ad network (thus challenging eBay directly).
All of this points to a search engine's vote of confidence in capitalism, but is the consumer democracy sacrificed in the process? Jamie's e-mail triggered a lengthy exchange, some of which is adapted here. Before prognosticating on the future, we need a clearer understanding of where we are now. With search engine optimization, those who have meaningful content and search-friendly site design enabling engines to find it get rewarded. But the content has to be relevant. And with paid search, the ads must be relevant, or they get dropped. The democracy of the Internet still thrives, especially with search, and the meritocracy reigns. Long live the king.
Jamie wrote back, "What stops a clever person from saying, here is the search engine -- you pay me $X and I will get you closer to the top for these defined search terms?"
It's reminiscent of a line I heard from Weblogs Inc. founder Jason Calacanis at MediaPost's OMMA West event earlier this month. During a panel on blogging, he uttered something to the effect of, "I wish all search engine optimization firms would go away." I wrote him shortly after to challenge him to a debate via blog, podcast, or his medium of choice, though I've yet to hear back.
Jamie's fear and Jason's gripe seem to stem from this belief that deep pockets can create a winner-take-all search experience. That's yet to occur in practice, and the prevalence of big brands among commercial search results is actually a positive. This may be politically incorrect to say aloud, but capitalism isn't a dirty word. There are many reasons someone will click on a given search result over another, and brand recognition (or more importantly, brand trust) plays a significant role for commercial searches.
Does a big-three auto manufacturer have more of an advantage than Jimmy's Spokane dealership in ranking high for car-related searches? Sure. But one can safely assume more people are looking for a known brand than they would be looking for Jimmy in Spokane. And if someone wants to find Jimmy, they'll refine their search or turn to Yellow Pages sites and local search. The consumer still holds all the cards, not the marketer.
Consumers have successfully rebelled against pop-ups, they've called for best practices in e-mail marketing, and, years ago, they inspired a code of ethics for search engine marketing. Online, it's easier to experiment, but it's also easier to receive feedback, and time after time - it's almost mind-boggling - the consumers keep winning.
Given the mission-focused nature of search results, where consumers will only accept what enables them to best complete the task they turned to the search engines for, search engines are especially accountable. The winning search players over the long haul will be those who understand what it means to develop long-term relationships with their user base.
I'm a firm believer in the good guys winning online. They keep doing so time and time again. Thus, I envision a future for the Internet that will revolve around capitalism, but it won't be of the unfettered, runaway nature. Remember, we had that for a few years, and nearly everyone lost. It doesn't work.
But online, democracy does, and search is the ultimate embodiment of this consumer democracy.