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© 2000

Compromising Positions: As a Media Pimp, AltaVista Is Far From Alone
By Andrew Goodman - November 15, 2000

According to Berth Milton, CEO of Private Media, a NASDAQ-listed pornography peddler which has just inked a deal for targeted keyword advertising on the AltaVista web search engine, half of all searches on AltaVista are sex related. Half. So forgive AltaVista for being tempted (they have their own long-delayed IPO to worry about, and what better way to get there than to monetize the, you know), and say a prayer for the deluded souls who believe they are going to be able to search for porn in a completely objective, scientific fashion.

Actually, we can't forgive AltaVista that quickly. Because it seems you can't believe a word they say. One day, they're saying they have launched an ISP, and the next thing you know, it never existed. One day, they're talking about returning to their old brand image as a serious search engine company. The next thing you know, they're monetizing porn traffic faster than you can say "Hi Honey You're Home Early > Start > Shut Down > Shut Down Computer."

But we're not here to talk about porn, or even AltaVista's P.R. failings. In question is the insidious way that the online media trick consumers into thinking they're searching or reading, when in fact they may be viewing advertising or partner product placements.

A recent story in Utne Reader Online, Finders Keepers, looks at issues such as the lines being blurred between paid search results and "real search results." Not too long ago, Traffick also wondered how far it could all go, for example in a recent article called Scientists Baffled by Strange GoTo Phenomenon. Yet we still trust our first instinct, namely that Paid Search Results are Here to Stay.

Authors such as Douglas Rushkoff have described the details of big media and advertising "coercion" - putting unseen pressure on people to buy with the use of psychological tricks. Background concerns such as these no doubt inform the judgments of regulators taking their sweet time giving approval for the AOL Time Warner merger. You don't want to be hasty in making decisions about the legally permissible extent of thought control.

The political philosophers and critics of mass media, evidently, have now discovered how search engines and portals make money. Those of us who already knew that (targeted advertising, premium placements, partnerships, direct marketing) are nonetheless keeping an eye out on the changing face of advertising through search engines. As the number of premium links and "keyword-triggered" advertisements increases in proportion to content or "real search results," will search engine results lose their legitimacy with the buying public? If so, then the "game" could be spoiled for all concerned. However, it isn't necessarily wrong to suggest that consumers sometimes want advertising. And it's misleading to imply that pure commerce is just an impediment to consumers getting to what they "really want." Otherwise, no one would be buying anything.

In any case, it isn't just Utne Reader readers or consumers who need to be concerned about the way portals and search engines mix advertising with content and search. It's in everyone's interest to make this a sandbox we can all play in.

Still, there seem to be few limits to how far the mass media are willing to bend rules if enough money is at stake. Remember when people said that half-hour-long TV infomercials would outrage people? People actually watch these things now for entertainment. Some poor saps get stuck on the shopping channel for hours on end.

Just look at pro sports, and how the mystique of championships has been dampened by vast increases in the number of televised sports; the always-on sports cable channels with endless highlight reels; the vast expansion in the number of teams in major leagues (a hockey team in Columbus, Ohio?) and coinciding increases in the number of playoff-qualifying teams and the length of playoff series; how baseball has turned into a home-run-derby; how discerning fans get turned off as leagues and franchises bid to maximize revenues.

Long term, the whole thing could come crashing down as fans lose interest in a diluted product. But we've been predicting this for a couple of decades now. The opposite seems to have happened. It's as if the excess has just led to an increased appetite for ever-more-trivial made-up competitions (viz., Survivor). It's as if mass media were a drug like Snickers Bars or booze.

This is also why I don't agree with Seth Godin when he places TV ads in a category associated with a doomed past called "interruption marketing." When the Atlanta Thrashers are playing the Minnesota Wild on a Thursday night, almost any interruption would be welcome.

As long as the purveyors of this endless round of questionable amusements and commercials continue to make money, you won't see a lot of interest in shortening seasons, un-juicing baseballs, calling strikes, or going back to the old way, when the baseball playoffs started with four teams.

And to get back to the topic at hand: for every de-commercializing move you see by a major search engine or portal (say, AltaVista dropping some of its business-to-consumer emphasis to focus on search technology), you see two moves in the opposite direction (say, AltaVista accepting an increased number of keyword-targeted advertisements from pornographers, or yet another portal featuring pay-for-placement search engine results from

So what am I saying? I believe a television executive had the idea when he said that you'll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. Maybe a bit insulting, but then again, he didn't go broke. My prediction reads simply: "Expect the excess to continue."


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