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Old 01-10-2006   #1
dannysullivan
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Search Engine Leeches, Dependency & Losing Perspective

Over the past six months or so, I've seen a real rise in the number of people yammering on (and I used that charged word purposely) about needing to free themselves from search engine dependency.

The latest comes from respected usability guru Jakob Nielsen, over in Search Engines as Leeches on the Web. Search engines such up too much value he says out of the same companies that form their core content.

My response is over in Search Engines As Leeches, The Difference Between Paid & Free Listings & Keyword Price Rises, where I explain how Jakob's comments will likely resonate with some people but for the wrong reasons. At his core, he's concerned about keyword price rises rather than organic listings.

I guess I'm old, tired, grumpy or whatever, but I missed the memo where the search engines asked anyone to enslave themselves for traffic. What's going on that so many people feel this way? I'd really like to explore that more in this thread.

We have had over the years various people worry, posit, suggest or whatever that search engines are like the gatekeepers of the web. If you're not in the top ten results you don't exist and so on. Some have even felt they need to be regulated because of it.

I still see people having those types of worries even today. At the same time, we also have more and more people talking about how they don't need to depend on search engines. When WebmasterWorld banned spiders, you even had people cheering them on wishing they could do the same, live without search engines.

Hey, anyone can live without search engines if they want. Just put up a robots.txt file now and ban them. That will give you a fast track way to weaning yourself away from search.

Where I think people are going wrong is similar to what I wrote in the WebmasterWorld bans spiders discussion. Balance and perspective are being lost.

No, you don't 100 percent of your traffic from search engines. They are and always have been fickle creatures. Rankings can go at any moment, and 100 percent dependent on them is dangerous. That's true even if you are wisely doing a mix of paid and organic, since paid prices can rise as well.

But no, you don't want 0 percent of your traffic from search engines. In virtually all cases, anyone who purposely ignores search engines traffic is an idiot. Yep, a charged word again, but true.

Everyone uses search engines to find things. And not everyone knows your site. I don't care if you're Slashdot, WebmasterWorld, Search Engine Watch or flippin' Google for that matter. There's always a new generation of people coming onto the web. They're going to turn to search engines to find something to help satisfy their desire. You can be one of the possible places they visit and perhaps gain a lifetime visitor through search. Or, you can stick your head in the sand and say you want to be completely search independent and leave those visitors to everyone else.

There's no questions sites can be successful without search. There are an always have been alternative ways to get traffic. From day one in my writing here, I've always encouraged people to diversify and think beyond search engines. When I do my Intro To Search Marketing session, which I've done for ages, it's one of the top tips in my last slide -- don't depend entirely on search engines.

But don't ignore them, either! While you can be successful without search, you can be more successful with it. A well rounded marketer is going to do a variety of offline and online tactics to attract visitors. Search should be part of that, not the entire part but neither ignored.

So much for my rant, which I guess I hope mainly helps stress the point that anyone who is still operating in a "search is everything" bubble needs a wake-up call. But at the same time, don't let that pendulum swing so far the other way that you abandon thinking about search. Get balanced.

Last edited by Nacho : 01-11-2006 at 02:02 AM. Reason: Fixed link to forum thread
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Old 01-10-2006   #2
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I started a series of children's websites about 8 years ago. KidsAstronomy.com, KidsNumbers.com, KidsBiology.com, and on and on and on.

Combined, the sites are approaching 10 million impressions monthly. For me, the best source of traffic has never been search engines, in fact, search engines only make up a small portion of my traffic.

The vast, and I mean VAST majority of traffic comes from individual teachers. On the downside, my traffic almost falls off the face of the earth in the Summer, and weekends. It has taken 8 years to build the traffic to where it is. Even if I fell off of the search engines tomorrow, my traffic would hardly fluctuate at all.

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Old 01-10-2006   #3
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Well said Danny!

One thing though: shouldn't the SEM community be proud that people have overblown how important it is? I mean, would TV Ad execs ever bemoan the fact TV ads are seen as a panacea? If we want to be a "real" marketing industry, we need to start (what is the word marketing people use instead of lying) and not be so quick to tell the world our flaws.

SEM's value is exactly what it is, and I see no reason for insiders to denegrate it.

In many ways, that article is vindication of the industry. You know you have "made it" as an industry when a competitor for the same budget (which Jakob almostt admits he is) has a dig. No one has a go at a competitor that isn't doing much business, only those that are (becoming?) a force. Radio vs TV vs Newspaper vs SEM. SEM rarely held such a place before!

That article is weird beause it talks about search as if the game should end. Crazy talk! There are same "games" that, no matter how annoying, once we start playing them, we can never stop. The classic example is the web itself.

My father once said to me that these days (the late 80s), businesses needed to have so many things top survive. A phone, a computer, a fax, business cards, and now this new fangled "Car Phone" that he needed to stay in contact. We can add website to that list now, and a whole host of other items (and costs) that go with needing a web presence.

Once the web game got started, we were all stuck playing it, and dedicating funds to it. Like Taxation, the game has no end, and rarely any clear "winners", but it is a game in which one merely hopes to stay alive in, and needs to have a foot in.

If SEM has reached the point where it is an integral part of marketing spending, and major advertising competitors are having a go, I think that speaks volume sof how good SEM has been in getting not just a foothold, but a strong standing in the marketing world.
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Old 01-10-2006   #4
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Of course - if Jakob were a marketing expert - instead of just a usability expert - he'd have a made a very subtle - but incredibly important point.

Search engines are generally good at delivering NEW PROSPECTIVE client traffic. Not ALL traffic.

Healthy businesses with happy customers/ committed clients / business partners and community members - who are the BULK of most website's visitors from the website logs I've analysed over the past 5 years - get MOST of their traffic from returning visitors i.e. bookmarks.

I visit this forum at least daily. When was the last time I used Google - or any other search engine - to find it?

When did you? Most traffic volume (from my experience) is returning visitors via bookmarks.

Search - like yellow pages = new client acquisition.
Everything else - like white pages = repeat business

From my 20 odd years in the IT/ communications industry - the general rule of thumb was always been that selling to an exisiting customer has always cost around 10% of the cost of acquiring a new one.

What's changed?

"Everything old is new again"..... that's what gives old blokes an advantage

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Old 01-10-2006   #5
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Originally Posted by Danny
So much for my rant, which I guess I hope mainly helps stress the point that anyone who is still operating in a "search is everything" bubble needs a wake-up call. But at the same time, don't let that pendulum swing so far the other way that you abandon thinking about search. Get balanced.
Yep, definitely agree. But I think that Mr. Nielsen was also saying something similar. I don't think he was saying not to use paid search at all. He even seemed to admit that PPC was a worthwhile way of finding *new* customers who might otherwise not know of you.

It seemed to me that he was mostly stressing that you had to also be able to keep those customers returning, as that can be a whole lot cheaper than constantly trying to find new customers.
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Old 01-10-2006   #6
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Maybe I missed the "big picture" with his post but I didn't get that his point was to not want, wish for or work for search engine traffic. I thought his point was that the underlying motivation of search engines is changing from wanting to be a library of sites to send people to, to becoming a destination site which would in essence make them not the sender of traffic as much as the stealer of customers.

We've all known since the days of Jimworld that we shared an odd if not uneasy kind of symbiotic relationship with search engines. They needed our content and we needed their traffic. I have a hard time believing Jacob was simply over-stating the obvious to the extreme. That's why I thought he was getting at the question of, what if they changed the deal? What if they kept taking our content but stopped sending the traffic to us and instead kept it for themselves?

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Old 01-10-2006   #7
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I've always had the mindset that search engine placement was only one aspect of an entire marketing campaign. Anyone that relies solely on placement will definately be disappointed at the results.
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Old 01-10-2006   #8
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>Anyone that relies solely on placement will definately be disappointed at the results.<

Not to be contrary, but I certainly can't agree with that statement. I've been very far from dissapointed more times than I can recall at the results from an endeavor that relied on nothing but placements. I'm pretty much not dissappointed today as fatter of mact.
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Old 01-10-2006   #9
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That's why I thought he was getting at the question of, what if they changed the deal? What if they kept taking our content but stopped sending the traffic to us and instead kept it for themselves?
Maybe he had a variety of concerns and it's all getting muddled up. Many of the concerns are valid:

1) It's easy to get too dependent on search engines.

2) Search engines can be viewed as taking from content owners but until recently, not giving them a heck of a lot of tools for support in being indexed.

3) Bid rates are going up.

4) Better conversion analysis means that people are pushing those rates up.

5) People making use of conversion tools offered by the search engines are helping them understand in aggregate that there's more room for higher bids, since conversions are happening below costs that can be paid. Hence the desire to make it easy for people to use these tools.

6) Search engines are well back into being sticky portals again, in many ways.

7) Search engines could try to put walls back up especially as Lycos once did. Remember when you'd do searches on Lycos in like 1999 and have a real challenge finding a link that led out of it?

There are more points I could throw in, and not all paranoia but real, honest concerns. The problem I think with his essay is that he started out with what seemed an issue about organic listings, throws in a paid example as his proof and spinkled in some other things. In contrast, I could take the list above and build any of those with much better examples to better support a "search engines as leeches" argument.

Site owners definitely need to be wary of things. But biggest thing is probably back his main point, however he arrived at it. Don't depend on fickle search engines for all of your traffic.
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Old 01-10-2006   #10
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3) Bid rates are going up.
See, that to me makes no sense as a bad point. Doesn't every marketing medium hit an optimal level inevitably? No one paid a billion dollars for the English Premier League TV rights 20 years ago. Now Murdock does.

Costs go up, margins come down until the pricing is at the optimal point at which businesses are able to make money, and new competitors can not undercut existing businesses and stay profitable. That is how business (is suppossed to for society) work.

I think Nielsen's article is exactly what all his articles are: an attempt to get people to talk about him and say things like "respected usability guru Jakob Nielsen". As usual, he hit the perfect spot. Just enough to talk about, just enough holes and just controversial enough.

Effect: Branding Branding Branding for Mr Nielsen

Or am I become an old cynic in the last few days of my twenties?
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Old 01-11-2006   #11
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Place your left hand on the green dot.

Well, usability is my thing and I admit to being completely confounded by Nielsen's article.

There are such interesting behavorial studies coming out on user behavior and search engines results that I felt were building a bridge between building better web sites for people and search engines.

I can't find the value in complaining about search engine dependency and finding ways to blame them or the mechanics of how they work for any conversion problems.

Take just one line from this one study:

Quote:
Several participants commented that they would like the ability to organize results in multiple ways, possibly customizing their own organization scheme.
Why the push to be liberated from seach engines and turn to other forms of marketing, from a usabilty guru? Well, of course. Duh. Marketing was never just about rank or PPI.

Making search engines more accomadating for people to use, on the other hand, would require some focus on usability.

This whole thing reminds me of the game of Twister.
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Old 01-11-2006   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by dannysullivan
Over the past six months or so, I've seen a real rise in the number of people yammering on (and I used that charged word purposely) about needing to free themselves from search engine dependency.

So much for my rant, which I guess I hope mainly helps stress the point that anyone who is still operating in a "search is everything" bubble needs a wake-up call. But at the same time, don't let that pendulum swing so far the other way that you abandon thinking about search. Get balanced.
Hi Danny,

I'm glad you put it forth in this way.

Now that you mention it, the whole idea of search engine / portal dependency was one of the guiding themes of our self-appointed coverage of the space when we started publishing Traffick.com in 1999.

So, although no time to deal with it in depth right now... I think I'm going to have to disagree with you.

This is fundamentally a matter of distribution, and control over it. The major media companies, be they studios, networks, telcos, and, if you wanted to keep going... railways... chemical companies... pharmas...

The media world has changed so much. The Internet has changed the way we access information. Cable has exploded. VoIP trumps phone monopolies, maybe. Just for starters of course. We could go on.

But this isn't SOLELY about bits & bytes and ideas and models. It's not solely a story of empowerment and diversity of options. Consumers and end users are looking for businesses, and they must find them somewhere. It's in the major distributors of listings' interest that that somewhere be "their" somewhere.

There is a reason investors reward companies that achieve unfair advantages -- as Microsoft did. They suck up power and resources, and while the party lasts, you bet your booty there is a whole ecosystem that is dependent on them.

Media barons are more tenuous today than they were when it was possible to control a whole industry. But there is still considerable concentration in industries like radio and yes, in Internet search. Where there is concentration of assets, surely we can agree there must be power to set the agenda, and to exact a toll from businesses who wish to get consumers' attention.

No matter what other online or offline promotion avenues you hope to use, someone surely has to discover you in the first place. You're not completely screwed if you're not visible in search engines, but for businesses, invisibility is a bad thing.

As for Jakob's piece, definitely some debatable points there. I think probably the language of "leeches" makes it seem more provocative than it really is. And I did agree with your point in comparing the scenario he posits for rising ad rates in the search realm, with some offline promotional opportunity, like TV - a point I would also have made.
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Old 01-11-2006   #13
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Danny,

I think it's great that you responded to Nielsen's essay. I was very disturbed after reading it myself.

You are spot on with your point regarding LCV. Many organizations don't take these metrics into account yet from search. As we begin to be able to determine this value and increase it through other online means like eCRM, businesses will begin to further understand what is obvious to so many of us in search. Search is tremendously undervalued as an advertising medium, even as it stands today. Looking ahead search will continue to provide substantially more value to businesses than other advertising mediums. While we currently have advantages in providing measurable data to our clients over other mediums we are only beginning to track and understand the crossover value of search with other online media, properties, content, and as you mentioned, the offline and branding value.

Additionally, as search marketers we continue to help businesses leverage technology to provide more relevancy and increased conversion rates through advances in analytics and tools like multivariate testing. Yet again, most organizations are not doing this today. They will soon and the value of their businesses will rise. Though I doubt they will be "handing over that all that added value to the search engines" as Nielsen states.

This hand-off Nielsen hypothesizes is never going to happen. In fact, the opposite looks more likely. Online business value will continue to go up and search inventory (and value of the search engines) will continue to go down. I know I'm not alone in already experiencing my clients desiring to purchase more inventory that isn't available. Therein lies a real long-term problem for businesses and our industry. So what do we suggest businesses do in these instances? Focus more on the very things Nielsen suggested like newsletters, affiliate programs, eCRM, etc.

Nielsen needs to come to grips with Search as a business...and a pretty darn big one too. Rather than sucking value out of the web search is actually creating value and helping the lives of millions of consumers and citizens across the globe. I couldn't be prouder to represent it and present its value to the leading businesses in the world.

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Old 01-11-2006   #14
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It's an Argument About the Net Transfer of Wealth

Just to clarify what Jakob was saying, as far as I was concerned, anyway...

Take the hypothetical/counterfactual scenario where (a) There are leading search engines that *don't* extract a fee from advertisers for getting clicked on; (b) Many users use those engines; (c) the SE is good enough, in some way, that spam is in check.

That situation has existed at certain points in time, minus (c).

So this is not an emotional argument about who has the right to cry and moan, but it is food for thought about the effects that occur when so much money moves from one set of economic actors (large set) to another (just a few companies controlled by a few people). Imagine a different time and place where there were not-for-profit SE's that really didn't think they had a claim to any share of the wealth that could be created by heavy user traffic. (There would be less disruption to business, though this might simply mean backroom deals to get free SE exposure, and some businesses getting wealthy without giving back, etc.; but it would be a wider distribution of business growth not all concentrated in one or two companies. Jakob mentioned that one of the impacts of that hyper-profits in companies like Google is that they can give away tools and services, and doing that of course affects the growth prospects of companies that would charge for the same stuff.)

It's an argument that says: here's what *search could be like* (all free traffic, all the time). You could modify that slightly and just posit a world in which search engines made *less* profit, extracting less net wealth from companies in the ecosystem. (Remember, Jakob didn't sugar coat what he was saying -- he used the phrase "the obscene profitability of search advertising.")

It's an argument that obviously has a social-impact side to it that says that we shouldn't just stand by and treat the economy as a disembodied thing. If there is something we don't like about it, we can say so. (Scandinavians are like that.)

It's an argument that would probably take issue with the net transfer of wealth that has gone from advertisers to earlier media monopolies as well. The argument could be made that publishers/networks etc. have historically had too much power to extract too high a premium from companies (too high is obviously a non-market value judgment, but then again, the idea of a market is perverted once markets become monopolistic.) "Too high" could simply mean -- the car companies like GM could have created much better products and competed much better if they had only spent 25% of those obscene ad budgets, and plowed the rest back into product development and worker training. In fact, it would have been a very different world had all auto companies made this decision. In recent books Godin writes provocatively about the "television-industrial complex" of the 1950's and 1960's -- spend heavily on ads, build brand, plow profits back into more ads, continue cycle. His characterization of that era is critical. He is saying that this state of affairs hindered innovation, and created an ever-escalating clutter of messages that has made it harder and harder to reach consumers cost-effectively.

True, no one had a gun to GM's head, but it has taken a long time for companies like this to even consider the idea that the net transfer of their wealth to the purveyors of advertising opportunities is hurting them terribly in the marketplace, threatening their very survival. (Godin's Free Prize Inside makes a similar point, in a bunch of different ways. Quit marketing so much & build a better product, and people will find out about it.)

It's probably far too early to give up on search, since a GM would transfer far less of its wealth to Google than it does to TV. Far, far less. Search is still a great deal, and building a better mousetrap and using the diverse marketing muscle referred to by Grehan in recent columns will get you a lot of free SE traction.

But it's not silly to make the point. There is a social impact. The ecosystem is changing, as SE's extract more net wealth. There is less left over for companies that must pay the paid search toll, and thus, some kinds of companies may be weakened unless they wake up and stop chasing down the paid search trail like stupid bloodhounds.

The funny thing about it is, I think Google has actually taken this into account by looking at Quality in both the search and paid search algos. They have left reasonable spaces for relevant and creative companies to show up at low cost.

Weaning yourself from search dependency is a good idea to bring up if it reminds a few marketers to stop throwing money at bid wars, and even that they cannot purely win just by spending money on usability, since ceteris parabis whatever, everyone will soon fix the most glaring usability probs on their sites, if they are spending enough money to show up in search results.

Some larger ideas here -- radical ones I realize, but I think this is the alternative universe (not so distant, some of it, in the past era where B2B companies could just be found for free) Jakob was alluding to, might be along the lines of:

- The only reason there is such a large net transfer of wealth from all in the (say) health care consulting sector, to Google and Yahoo, is the fact that they bid each other up. If everyone agreed to bid under 50 cents for all keywords, the net dollar result would be a weaker search engine balance sheet and a stronger health care consulting sector. Obviously, talking to your competitors and agreeing to lower bids is something no one could recommend, but as a principle that would have that effect if put into practice, it's fair to point it out;

- If users boycotted the major search engines in favor of those who showed fewer ads, cheaper ads, or those who returned a % of profits equally to all advertisers, the net imbalance in strength between SE's and the companies in their ecoystem would be righted in favor of a more balanced distribution of profits;

- If more users stuck to nonprofit forms of information and companies spent less money and time trying to bother those users, social knowledge would grow and less resources would be wasted by companies. (This is already something the SE's facilitate, though, by promoting those very types of informational results that so often come up in SERP's.)

Probably we are not soon going to see massive shifts, but I think it is absolutely fair to have the conversation insofar as search engines have become very powerful economic forces. Every time one company with a few major shareholders controls the fate of the world, you're bound to get a few complaints. I still don't see many people using alternatives to Windows or Microsoft Office... although you could. In fact, the eventual realization that Microsoft is too powerful has caused some people to adopt other browsers. It's that kind of sentiment that will have both marketers and users searching for alternatives to Google.

It is of course fair enough to cheerlead for search as still a great deal in comparison with other marketing methods. (And no one's putting a gun to your head.) But in some industries, companies are being weakened just as Google is being strengthened. Which is a 180 from the days when many companies got free exposure on search, no companies paid a dime, and the search engines went out of business because they hadn't yet figured out how to extract their toll.

You may say Jakob's a dreamer... but he's not the only one. And he's described the current search ecosystem quite accurately, from a dollars and cents (and who has them) standpoint.
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Old 01-11-2006   #15
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Is it a sad comment on us that we are ripping into this topic across two platforms now and I have not looked to see if other forums have picked this topic up....

Search engine placement is a marketing method... be it organic or PPC - we are trying to get placed to get traffic. Is there the potential for the engines to have a huge impact on that traffic when they change or dramatically increase cost or method of listing (as Yahoo! threatens) - of course.

But telemarketing was a great way for many businesses to get customers and it was worked hard until the governemnt got involved and created the "No Call" lists... it hurt but people adapted...

If the engines make changes we adapt... if they change dramatically and we have to find another way for people to find out about us I am sure we will come up with creatives ideas....

massa had one with the post-its in the bathrooms....

BMW got great exposure from its viral films...

There will always be a way.... it will be different but it will in time work.... hey search is not really as old as the web - at least in its current reincarnation...
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Old 01-12-2006   #16
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Not to beat a dead horse, but the strong suggestion from Nielsen's end is that Google is "overmonetizing," weakening its ecosystem, and may, therefore, be evil.

I know that sounds strange, but companies have choices. Look at Craigslist. $50 million in annual revenue, tops, and no plans by Craig Newmark for a lavish IPO.

It's not all or nothing, but I think it is indeed food for thought, that big companies have to figure out ways of giving back. Google is a particularly strange company in that the advertising side is so money-hungry (esp. the way they run AdSense), and then huge other parts of the company are R&D, free stuff, etc. It's, like, schizophrenic. Indeed you hear that many Googlers, especially the founders, are poised for unprecedented levels of philanthropy. But at companies/projects like Craigslist and Wikipedia, moderation in monetization is built right into how the company does business. It's not "monetize at all costs, so we can do good, as we define it."
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Old 01-12-2006   #17
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Originally Posted by andrewgoodman
Not to beat a dead horse, but the strong suggestion from Nielsen's end is that Google is "overmonetizing," weakening its ecosystem, and may, therefore, be evil.

I know that sounds strange, but companies have choices. Look at Craigslist. $50 million in annual revenue, tops, and no plans by Craig Newmark for a lavish IPO.

It's not all or nothing, but I think it is indeed food for thought, that big companies have to figure out ways of giving back. Google is a particularly strange company in that the advertising side is so money-hungry (esp. the way they run AdSense), and then huge other parts of the company are R&D, free stuff, etc. It's, like, schizophrenic. Indeed you hear that many Googlers, especially the founders, are poised for unprecedented levels of philanthropy. But at companies/projects like Craigslist and Wikipedia, moderation in monetization is built right into how the company does business. It's not "monetize at all costs, so we can do good, as we define it."
I need to get on your pro bono list Andrew... I have a couple of sites I never have enough time to get to....

PS. Craigslist sold a piece of itself to EBay.... guess that cash gave Craig a little breathing room.
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Old 01-12-2006   #18
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PS. Craigslist sold a piece of itself to EBay.... guess that cash gave Craig a little breathing room.
Actually, it didn't. He wasn't involved in the sale.

One of the folks who was given an equity interest in Craig's List sold his ownership to eBay. More here:

EBay Buys Stake in Craigslist
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Old 01-12-2006   #19
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Actually, it didn't. He wasn't involved in the sale.

One of the folks who was given an equity interest in Craig's List sold his ownership to eBay. More here:

EBay Buys Stake in Craigslist
Sorry for the inaccuracy.... so Craig did not directly profit... well the shares were given in exchange for something he may have had to pay for otherwise....
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Old 01-13-2006   #20
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That's why I thought he was getting at the question of, what if they changed the deal? What if they kept taking our content but stopped sending the traffic to us and instead kept it for themselves?
A search engines power comes from, or is directly rooted in, the service they offer. If they change the service, their power will disapear within a matter of months. This is why you can rest assured that they will continue to act ethically.

Most of the content online is copyrighted, and all of us have the right to deny a search engine access to indexing it. If they were to 'change the deal' SEO's everywhere would simply block them from accessing their content. I don't mean technically block them, I mean legally block them.
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