Wednesday, 27 April 2011
Paid-for search could be inevitable
@glynmoody sent out this post by Wired executive editor Kevin Kelly: Would You Pay For Search?
I'm guessing many people's instinctive answer would be a defiant no.
But this happens to be something I've been thinking about for a while, and I'm more confident there'll be quality free newspapers available in ten years' time than I am quality free search engines.
My reasoning is as follows. Firstly it's far easier to protect the proprietary back-end algorithms of search than it is to protect the digital copyright in journalism. Forget the arguments over the rights and wrongs of this, it's just a plain fact of digital life. Build a search engine that works really well and they will come...
Secondly, the advertising model works for journalism. It might not pay well at the moment, but the model fundamentally works well, and has been proven in newsprint for centuries. Sure, there has been a cover price, but consider the cost of printing, distribution and news-agents' cut compared to digital hosting.
However the advertising model for search is partly broken, in that advertisers want their products to rank highly in both organic search and paid-for "sponsored" links, yet consumers want the search engine to return the best possible results. And quickly.
Kevin Kelly relays in his post the essence of search is that it gets the answers we need, and the quicker it does so the more time, and hence money, it saves us, the consumer.
Herein lies the conflict of interests. Websites making money through traffic from search engines (SEO-reliant businesses) are fundamentally focussed on getting their products up the search order. Consumers want the most relevant and useful results at the top.
It's easy to see where the money is coming to drive poor search results!
I see practical issues faced by search engines in courting advertisers as reasonably analogous to those faced by consumer review magazines such as Which? Would we trust a review for washing machines if the page opposite was a full-page ad for Zanussi or Hoover?
It's not just an issue of consumer trust. How would a brand feel about advertising in a magazine that had spent the last 2 issues laying out how shonky the company was?
Essentially the search engine is an instant consumer guide of the links available for any given search term.
Thirdly; or, partly related to my second point; I'm looking at the question of what will drive better search. Search engines at the moment get paid for each ad they display. Even if there was fierce competition in the English-language search market there are still the guaranteed traffic drivers for search engines through Audience Monopoly.
Search engines team up browser manufacturers, OS manufacturers, anti-virus manufacturers, with Facebook or the next big thing. There'll always be the traffic from the average punter wanting average answers.
But I opened my post with a prediction about quality search engines. What will drive quality in search results? Not advertising, but your subscription fees.