Search Engine Submission Trends

In the olds days (1999!), submission was a numbers game. The more sites you could properly submit to, the more traffic you'd get. But as the internet matures, this is rapidly changing.

12/12/01: Bruce Clay has published a great PDF chart of the relationships between all the search engines.
07/10/01: Altavista is now offering paid inclusion; see below for details.
05/15/01: The Mamma Metasearch Engine is now offering paid inclusion; see below for details.

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The big difference is that these days, it costs to get a listing in the major indexes (Yahoo & Open Directory), and the search engines are also getting into the act -- Inktomi, Altavista and Mamma now have a paid-submission option, and the other major search engines are all considering following along.

There has been a lot of blathering on various discussion forums lately about the "death of free submission," but quite frankly I think that it's a good thing. I know that sounds weird, but bear with me for a minute.

From the standpoint of a commercial website, the problem with the net is that it is drowning in other websites. The number of webpages is growing rapidly, which makes it harder for people to find your website in the sea of other, similar websites.

When people want to find a website, they typically go to one of the major indexes or search engines. From your standpoint as a commercial website operator, would you like their search to list 10,000 websites (submitted for free), or 100 websites (each of which has paid $199 to get listed)? Obviously, the latter!

At the same time, as long as free submissions are available for non-commercial sites (and all the majors still permit this), non-commercial sites are not penalized, because they are not competing with commercial sites. So if you are not trying to make money on the web, fear not -- nothing has changed for you.

But if you are serious about doing business on the web, then paid submissions are a good thing. They cut out all the chaff. Or to put it more bluntly, "Money talks, B*llsh*t walks!"

The Economics of Paid Submission

If you make a profit of $10 when someone buys something on your site, and 1% of your visitors buy something, then each new visitor is worth 10 cents to you. If you can get visitors for 9 cents each, you make money; if they cost you 11 cents, you lose money. It's that simple.

There are three main sources for paid clicks that you should consider; paid submission to indexes (like Yahoo), paid inclusion in a search engine (currently only Inktomi, Altavista and Mamma provide this), and sponsored listings in a pay-per-click search engine (the biggest being All can be excellent sources of cost-effective traffic.

Paid Submission to Indexes

Three major indexes are now offering paid submission, and some of them require it in their business and shopping categories. It is important to understand that paid submission does not guarantee a listing -- if your site isn't good enough, they'll reject it and you're out the money (though you can appeal). I have an extensive tutorial on how to submit to Yahoo and the major indexes that should minimize your chances of a rejection and maximize your chances of a great listing that generates real traffic. I consider it the most important page on this site.

I paid $199 for my Yahoo listing (note: now they are charging $299!), and last year Yahoo sent me over 25,000 visitors. $199 / 30,000 = .8 cents a visitor. That's dirt cheap, and this year I get them for nothing, since a Yahoo registration is a 1-time thing. If you're selling on the web, that $299 is the best investment you'll ever make (other than the money you send to me, of course!). However, as of Dec 28, 2001, the Yahoo fee is now a yearly affair, so you need to carefully consider whether or not it will be cost effective.
Yahoo has just started offering Sponsored Listings for between $25 to $300 a month, depending on category. 5 sponsored listings are displayed at the top of category pages (if more than 5 people buy sponsored listings, they rotate randomly). In order to get a sponsored listing, you must first get a normal listing in Yahoo, then you can apply for a sponsored listing in the category your listing is in. You can't use this to change your listing title or description, by the way; it just gets you "up top."

Is it worth it? My experience is that Yahoo Sponsored Listings totally suck! Not only are the clickthroughs dismal, but when I applied for a sponsored listing, Yahoo edited my current Yahoo listing and totally trashed it. Talk about adding insult to injury! Yahoo was totally unresponsive to my inquiries regarding this action.

Note: Please don't confuse Yahoo's Sponsored Listings that appear in the directory listings with the Overture Sponsored Links that can appear in Yahoo search results. The latter can work just fine, and I have written a tutorial on how to use them properly.

Yahoo has also introduced "Most Popular" listings underneath the sponsored listings; so far it is unclear how a site becomes a Most Popular site.

Looksmart has (spring 2002) treacherously "upgraded" all their paid listings to a pay-per-click model. Don't give them a dime if you can avoid it. I no longer consider them to be a major index.

There are other, 2nd-tier indexes that offer paid submissions. None of them are worth it.

Paid Inclusion on Search Engines

Paid inclusion started out as a decent idea - you'd pay to be guaranteed that your URL was in the search engine and regularly updated, but the payment would not guarantee you a high ranking.

It's now mutated into something useless. Most of the worthwhile paid inclusion programs (Inktomi and Altavista) have merged into a monstrosity called Overture Site Match that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. For more details on why it's a bad idea, click here.

Sponsored Listings on a Pay-Per-Click Search Engine

If the average visitor to your site earns you 10 cents in profit, and you can get one by paying 5 cents, then you're in a position to make money. That's the idea behind pay-per-click. Search engine results are ranked not by keywords, but by how much you are willing to pay for a click. You bid for each keyword you want to sponsor.

The two leaders in the field are (by far the big kahuna) and FindWhat. The other sites aren't worth much, in my opinion. But the top two can make you money if you use them correctly, and I strongly recommend that commercial sites consider using them. I've written a detailed tutorial devoted to techniques for efficiently bidding on these sites, as well as Secret Net Tools (available to contributors) that help you find appropriate keywords to bid on and manage your bids.

Future Trends

Looking into my crystal ball, I think it's pretty clear that the days of effective free submission to the major search engines are numbered. This is a classic example of "the tragedy of the commons". If a resource is freely available to everyone, then nobody has any incentive to conserve it, and everyone will try and exploit it as much as they can before the other guy ruins it. The result, in a village common, is overgrazing; on search engines, it is spam.

If on the other hand, you charge people a small amount for listings, they get a lot more selective about what they submit. The quality of listings goes up. Spam goes down. This is a good thing. Furthermore, let's be honest, it's in our interests for the search engines to make money, because a bankrupt search engine is no help to anyone.

Since at the present time, most of the search engines (except for Yahoo) are losing money hand over fist, I think that all the major ones will adopt paid inclusion plans similar to Inktomi. I think they'd be stupid not to.

Going out further on a limb, I will make a stunning prediction. I predict that Yahoo will announce that they will start charging commercial sites a yearly maintenance fee for listings, in addition to their listing fee. And by the way, Yahoo guys, if you end up doing this because I suggested it, you owe me - small, unmarked, nonsequentially numbered bills, please.
Update: On December 28th, 2001, Yahoo started charging $299 a year for new listings. Old listings are grandfathered. No package of money has arrived for me yet, but I live in hope.

Extra Credit

I found the following articles on this topic interesting reading and you may as well.

Inktomi May Not Be Such a Bad Deal After All as Web Search Space Narrows by Andrew Goodman.

The End for Search Engines? by Danny Sullivan.

If you would like to reprint this article in your online or paper newsletter, please contact me for permission.

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