By Henk van Ess -

Is it the newest struggle for existence or an attempt to get a bigger market share? This month, search engine AltaVista introduces another marketing tool for advertisers after the much debated Express Inclusion. It's called the Vertical Skyscraper. You can't miss this new, scrollable mini-website. It's so big that it sometimes won't fit your screen.

AltaVista is quietly experimenting with the Skyscraper, but you can see it in action right now. Search for flowers on Altavista.com and you will certainly get what you asked for - even more. There are flowers everywhere: in the "featured site" list, in the "partner listings", in the new Vertical Skyscraper and in that old-fashioned list called ''search results''. The mini-site features a small shop with popular flower gifts and a search engine that enables you to choose the proper occasion (from Birthday to Funeral). AltaVista will start a marketing offensive for the new gimmick in three weeks. Prices start with five digits.

Is it worth your budget or bandwidth? AltaVista will have to fine-tune the new product. Search for wine and the Skyscraper will advise you to buy some ice tea. If you want to know more about 'airplane phobia', you are kindly invited to book a flight on Expedia.com. Or search for the words 'car theft', without quotes. The Vertical Skyscraper will tell you about great US-insurance for cars, powered by Ebix. Steal a car and get a free online auto insurance quote in 60 seconds?

The scraper is part of a whole new range of products. AltaVista has also plans to offer banners in odd positions and in new, different sizes. Search for 'sex' and you will see a glimpse of another mini-website in AltaVista. A spokesman of AltaVista UK says that 'the objectivity of search results' is still very important to the company. "We want to offer users and companies search tools that work."

Consumer Alert, a watchdog group financed by Ralph Nader, filed a petition with the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that AltaVista and seven other search engines confuse users with their ads. Surfers don't always know where the normal search results can be found. One of the accused, LookSmart, did not even raise the subject of ethics when the company adopted a pay-for-placement program last month. "We can't afford to have ideological debates anymore", CEO Evan Thornley told papers. Looksmart raised their price for Express Submit to a unprecedented $299 - after two business days you will be notified whether your site qualifies for inclusion in the directory or not.

AltaVista and Looksmart aren't the sector's best performers. Google and GoTo are growing much faster. Both are honest about the purpose of the ads. Google shows them as sponsored links. GoTo is honest in a different way: "The higher you bid, the more prominent your web site will appear in the search results" (quote from a message of GoTo to the author).

Henk van Ess is editor of http://www.voelspriet.nl a Dutch site about search engines. He's also webeditor of www.un.nl, a Dutch newspaper
August 7, 2001





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