Image by kbock70 via Flickr
Everyone is staring hard at Bing, Microsoft's new search engine, and I mostly like what I see, with one exception. I've written before about the search engine conflict of interest between highlighting their own properties and providing the truly best answer. In the quest for ever more cash, search engines are presenting results that point to their own pages. What does that mean to the searcher and to the search marketer?
If you don't know what I am talking about, take a look at search results from any major search engine today. They often highlight Web properties owned by their parent company. Google shows its YouTube videos, Yahoo shows its Flickr photos, Ask.com shows its CitySearch results, each of which shows more of their own advertising. Yahoo's Tim Mayer has been refreshingly open about their goal: to keep searchers on their results pages for as long as possible.
Microsoft didn't start this trend, but Bing is certainly part of it. From the few searches that I did in health care, it seems like Bing is being a bit more aggressive in highlighting its own properties. Search for "arthritis" and see what you get. Here's the top result as of today:
If you look closely, you can see that this is not the average search result--it's not the #1 result on merit. It's the top result because Microsoft has a deal with the Mayo Clinic to provide information on health conditions. I don't know which way the money flows, if at all, but this is a different way to get the top result than we've seen in the past. The other search engines favor their own properties but don't automatically slam them to the top of the list.
I'm not sure whether this is worse than what the other search engines do or not. Bing makes this search result look different than regular organic results, much the way Google pioneered distinguishing paid search results when the industry went through another major ethical dilemma. The other search engines often make their own properties blend in with the ones that really got their on merit.
This is not to say that those results are never there based on merit. Nor does it say that this is necessarily a bad experience for the searcher. Obviously, if searchers didn't click on these results, the technique would not work. And, taken to an extreme, if searchers begin to doubt the honesty of the results, a search engine is toast.
But the truth is that for many searches, such as "arthritis," the Mayo Clinic information doesn't seem any better or worse than say, the information from WebMD. But the WebMD information is far down the page for Bing, while it is near the top in Google.
Some of this is just the difference between how search rankings work across engines, but there's a larger point here. The truth is that if the Mayo Clinic information is featured, searchers are less likely to need the WebMD version, which is bad news for WebMD, but also for anyone whose search marketing strategy is based on content. Ask yourself what you'd do if you were WebMD. Wouldn't you be on the phone with Google, Yahoo!, and dozens of other search engines around the world to get your own deal like the one May has with Bing? It becomes an arms race where only the big and the connected get the special treatment.
If you think this affects only large businesses, think again. The more obscure the search keyword, the more likely that a small business, such as a local medical clinic, has prepared string helpful content that can win the battle of the search results. I searched for "osteomyelitis," a rare bone disease, and found the Cleveland Clinic rated highly by both Google and Bing. Because it is such a rare disease, there was no Mayo Clinic link for that keyword in Bing. But does anyone think that day won't be coming?
And don't breathe a sigh of relief if you're in a business other than health care. You can already see signs of this stuff in travel and shopping searches. It's likely that search engines are just working their way down the long tail, doing the most lucrative keywords first.
The simple fact is that all the search engines are looking to improve revenue and they are no longer going to be satisfied with merely selling ads for the searches. Now they want to sell ads for the results pages you click on, too. And that strategy favors large information providers, not small businesses. Where search was once one of the few forms of marketing where small businesses had a level playing field against large ones, I think that each day the field is tilting a bit more.
Be afraid. Be very afraid. There's only more to come.
Mike is an expert in search marketing, search technology, social media, publishing, text analytics, and web metrics, who regularly makes speaking appearances.
Mike's previous appearances include Text Analytics World, Rutgers Business School, SEMRush webinar, ClickZ Live.
Mike also founded and writes for Biznology, is the co-author of Outside-In Marketing (with James Mathewson) and the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (now in its 3rd edition, and sole author of Do It Wrong Quickly, named by the Miami Herald as one of the 11 best business books of 2007.
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