The rules of the game in Internet search are still being written, and strategies must adapt to suit the times.
Posted Feb 8, 2005
If you thought the Google IPO signaled the last shot in the online search engine war, and that everything that could possibly be known about reaching customers online was already signed, sealed, and delivered, think again. While Google is the hottest search engine going, known for depth, breadth, and accuracy, its major rivals at Yahoo! and Microsoft have not given up the fight, and dozens of smaller competitors still vie for mindshare and loyalty, each with its own unique set of page rankings and paid placement opportunities. Search engines remain an important medium for customer acquisition and education, and marketing strategists will need to stay abreast of change for some time to come.
The latest big challenge to Google's crown is the revamped MSN Search, which went fully live last week after a preview and trial period. The new engine, built to replace Inktomi technology now owned by rival Yahoo!, promises to refresh its database more often than rivals, closing the gap between a Web-site update and its incorporation in the search system. MSN is also integrating Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia to answer direct questions, in some cases eliminating the need for a potential customer to search the wider Web for information.
On the heels of the launch search technology experts are already beginning to publish guides on how to best structure Web-site design to appeal both to MSN and Google search results. This might cause a few groans in the Webmaster's office at the prospect of yet another tweak to Web elements like page titles and meta keywords. "Anyone who takes the approach that the rules for any game have been written and are concrete does so at their peril," says Clay Rider, executive vice president of analyst firm The Sageza Group. "For print and broadcast the rules of advertising have been turned around in the past few years, and search is no different."
Marketers who rely on paid search advertising will also want to carefully watch Google's response to its latest legal setback. In France a court has ruled that Google violated counterfeit and false publicity laws by providing competitive advertising placement to users searching for Louis Vuitton merchandise. Google, which has not yet announced if it will appeal, has provided marketers a chance to intercept the prospects of a competitor before they have the chance to make a transaction, by providing an alternate destination in a special advertising box.
If Google cannot reverse the decision, it may have to alter the scope of the operation of its AdWords service for certain localities, or even across the entire service, given the imperfect nature of tracking Internet addresses back to a specific location. "This is a country where competitive advertising is the norm," Rider says, "but in many countries competitive advertising is illegal...and if you're not allowed to compare with others, [you lose] one of the most powerful tools a search engine offers."
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