In a MediaPost "Just an Online Minute" column last week, writer Wendy Davis discussed a recent Merrill Lynch report that said Google may present a conflict of interest with advertisers by including links to its own content in natural and paid results. Every engine does this in one way or another, and it's arguably in the consumer's best interest. We'll explore if and how this threatens marketers, and what marketers can do.
There are several types of conflicts of interest that can present themselves, but today we'll focus on one type in particular: when engines link to content that sits above the body of natural results, oftentimes sandwiched between sponsored and natural listings. There's no universal term for these, so I'll call them Hyper-Relevant listings. Taking the engines' perspective, these are supposed to be more relevant to the user than either the natural or paid results. Otherwise, there'd be no need for them.
There are three types of Hyper-Relevant results, which I'll call Dead Ends, Flypaper, and Cross-Sells.
Dead Ends: These results potentially prevent users from clicking anywhere else. They're usually informational in nature. For instance, entering queries for weather, definitions, and phone numbers brings up the answers atop the natural results in many engines (try "weather" plus your zip code in Google or Yahoo as an example). This affects both natural and paid results. With the Dead End, there's less of a reason to go to any of the weather sites vying for top rankings. The search engine here serves as the destination. As users learn to use search engines as answer engines for quick queries, properties such as Weather.com, Dictionary.com, and WhitePages.com could eventually find themselves with diminished traffic from search. Their best bets are to try to partner with the engine to provide such information as Hyper Relevant results, but even with that route, it may or may not be enough to compensate for the ad revenue lost to lower site traffic, and there's only room for one answer provider.
Flypaper: These results aim to take users to more content from the engines, with the goal of keeping users around awhile. "Stickiness" metrics are back in fashion here. If you enter the query "Marlins" on Yahoo, a couple of ads come up, followed by a recap of recent scores by the baseball team, with a prominent link to a team page on Yahoo Sports --which is where the engine really wants you to go. Another example of Flypaper is entering a stock symbol on Google or Yahoo, which provides a quick dashboard that links to the engines' finance sections. Here, the engine is a very real competitor to any marketer in both the paid and natural results. Note that in both types of Flypaper cited, the engines could offer Dead Ends for quick informational searches, but the most value comes from the Flypaper.
Cross-Sells: These results take users to another of the engine's services or partners with the goal of helping the user complete a specific task or transaction. You'll find examples on every engine. Enter "recipes" in Google and a section appears with pull-down menus for "cuisine" and "ingredient" and another search button; searching brings up entries from Google Base. A search on "DVD player" in MSN brings up the three sponsored listings up top followed by a box from MSN Shopping on DVD players, with the three most popular products and their prices; all links point to MSN Shopping. When I used my laptop to run a search on AOL for "Madonna," a snapshot appeared that took up roughly one-third of the results column, followed by three sponsored links; the natural results were not visible without scrolling.
With Cross-Sells, the engine serves as a consumer resource and becomes a bit stickier (though not as sticky as Flypaper). Depending on the engine and type of service, Cross-Sells can also earn the engine revenue (e.g. commission on sales, fees to be listed, or clicks on ads if the page is ad-supported). The threat here is that Cross-Sells are especially dangerous for paid search advertisers, yet marketers can counter this by being listed on the Cross-Sell destination, such as MSN Shopping or Google Base; feeds will often be the most efficient remedy.
All three categories of Hyper-Relevant results pose threats to marketers and publishers. This is what happens when search engines get so good that they give consumers what they want, even beyond the relevance of the natural and paid results. When searching for DVD players on MSN, you'll also see a box that includes a link asking "Is this info useful?" The answer to that question, whether explicitly from feedback forms or implicitly from click-streams, will determine whether the engines keep adding Hyper-Relevant results. Given how the trend is going, expect such results to become ubiquitous, and expect top paid search bids and top natural search rankings to fetch even greater premiums.