Friday, December 16, 2005

MSN Throws Its Hat in the PPC Ring

When I was in Toronto for the May installment of Search Engine Strategies 2005, I spoke with one of the engineers who worked for MSN Search, and I was hard-pressed to find anything to distinguish MSN Search from Yahoo! Search, a fortiori since MSN Search was using Overture/Yahoo! Search Marketing to power its paid search results and apparently had no plans of changing over to its own pay-per-click ("PPC") program any time soon. However, during the intervening months, many of my clients have been solicited by MSN Search for a new PPC program, so I made a point of speaking with one of the people from MSN Search when I was in Chicago for the December installment of Search Engine Strategies 2005. Much to my surprise, I discovered that the honeymoon between MSN and Yahoo! Search Marketing is apparently coming to an end.

A beta version of MSN Search's new PPC program has already been deployed in markets outside of the United States. Within the United States, MSN Search has been quietly substituting its own sponsored search results for those of Yahoo! Search Marketing every once in a while for quite some time, and the virtual divorce between MSN Search and Yahoo! Search Marketing should be finalized very soon. Once that happens, there will be three major players at arms length in the search engine space -- Google, Yahoo!, and MSN -- each with their own unique combinations of organic and sponsored search results. And while MSN will almost certainly give Yahoo! and Google a run for their money, I believe that this will only set the stage for some other competitor to emerge in the search engine space, someone who has been quietly flying under the radar of most of the so-called "experts" in the search engine industry.

I've mentioned the new and improved GoGuides directory a couple of times in my XODP posts, and the more I know about their future business plans, the more I think that they have a future in the search engine space as a source of trusted URLs for organic, link-based search engine algorithms like Google. The same can be said for other small-scale Web directories like Best of the Web and Gimpsy, and this will prove to be true regardless of whether MSN, Yahoo!, Google, or some third-tier PPC search provider wins the coming search engine wars. And make no mistake about it, a search engine war is coming that will be won or lost based upon the viability of the various search engines' PPC programs, as PPC is the primary source of revenue for all companies in the search engine space.

There are several pretenders to the throne in the PPC space. To wit, while GoGuides relies upon paid submissions as its primary source of revenue, it also has its own nascent PPC program, aptly named "Links2Go," and people who submit their websites through GoGuides Easy Submit program for $39.95 are given a $79.95 credit at Links2Go. I am also privy to other business plans that GoGuides has, but I got the impression that those plans were shared with me in confidence by the powers that be and are not ready for publication. Suffice it to say that, in many ways, GoGuides fits the bill for one of those companies that I believe is quietly flying under the radar of most of the so-called "experts" in the search engine industry.

The second up-and-coming company that I like in the PPC space is SearchFeed.com, which I use to power the sponsored links on the XODP Web Guides. What I like about SearchFeed.com is that it provides an XML feed that can be integrated with a wide variety of search platforms. My only complaint about SearchFeed.com is that I don't seem to be getting proper credit for my referrals of new business. It's a minor complaint because the volume of business referrals that I send SearchFeed.com is diminutive, and my lack of credit is probably due to a technical glitch that I am causing. Even so, it's still a legitimate gripe, albeit one that I have not had the time or inclination to pursue.

The third up-and-coming company that I like in the PPC marketing space is a Toronto-based firm called Searchforit.com. I first met the principals of this company at the aforementioned May installment of Search Engine Strategies 2005 in Toronto, and I was very impressed with how they were handling many of the challenges found in PPC marketing. Specifically, one of Searchforit's primary concerns was click-fraud, and they have left no stone unturned in their attempts to ferret out the perpetrators of click fraud. On this note, Searchforit thoroughly vets the websites where its clients' ads appear and does not pimp out said clients to other third-tier PPC providers who are seeking "backfill" opportunities. All told, Searchforit is now claiming that its daily traffic is up to 4 million hits.

In sum, and getting back to my original thoughts, MSN's decision to throw its hat in the PPC ring is most noteworthy because of the overall impact that MSN will have on competition in the search engine market space. Mark my words: This is the beginning of the end of organic search dominance by Google and PPC dominance by Yahoo! Search Marketing. By the end of 2006, one or more virtual unknowns will have emerged as new leaders in the search engine space.

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