FEATURE 

What are search engines really looking for?

As all publishers continue to engage with the web, Jonathan Feroze, managing director of Business Monitor International and chairman of the UK Newsletter & Electronic Publishers Association (UK NEPA), reports on the latest onslaught of the search engines and how B2B niche publishers are well placed to strike back.

By Jonathan Feroze

For many of us, hardly a day goes by, in the office or at home, without running a search on Google, Yahoo! or MSN, who together account for almost 85% of all UK web queries. Google is way out in front with 55.6% of the total, against Yahoo!’s 16.8% and MSN’s 10.5%.

Yahoo! claims 411 million users (the size of the world’s 3rd largest nation), of which 119 million are registered. It has indexed 20 billion documents. And it doesn’t end there. MSN, with five billion documents indexed, now aims to index all of us through visitor demographics, in order to better target paid-for ad words.

Google, questing hard for worldwide domination of the web, in November, launched its latest assault on traditional media, with a new service that allows anyone to post their own content on the internet without having to develop their own website. This includes anything from holiday snaps to recipes and poetry. It also includes job listings and items for sale, which puts newspapers and the revenue they derive from classified ads in the firing line. Ditto online auction site, Ebay. Ditto rival search engines, and ditto – all of us?

Will ‘big brother’ turn out to be a search engine? And is any business space ultimately safe from the onslaught of the search engines? Well, in November, UK NEPA struck back with a half-day workshop, posing the question: ‘what are search engines really looking for?’ UK NEPA challenged a panel of search engine reps to own up to their megalomania, reveal their strategies, and allow traditional publishers to judge for themselves what opportunities and/or threats they pose to us.

Yahoo!’s challenge

First to speak was Rob Jonas, head of business development for Yahoo! UK & Ireland Search. Jonas got to the point pretty quickly: the challenge is to find (not search) ‘all human knowledge.’ No less!

Problem is, said Jonas, that most top-tier human knowledge is locked up behind firewalls, owned by publishers who only allow access to paying customers. Yahoo! Has, therefore, beta launched Subscription Search, which will facilitate searches of vertical, paid-for content on the basis of partnering with information hosts, providers and research firms (Factiva, FT.com, Forrester et al). This effectively allows search engine spiders and potential customers to locate value-added content without having it for free. Yahoo! and MSN have also joined the Open Content Alliance (OCA), which aims to list and link free content in a digital archive, ‘while respecting content owners and contributors.’

So what brought about Yahoo!’s sudden interest in paid-for content? ‘While we remain B2C, media, entertainment and advertising-oriented, we are seeing more and more specialised, business queries,’ explained Jonas. ‘Hence Yahoo!’s CAP (Content Acquisition Programme), aimed at partnering with publishers of top-tier content.’ Yahoo! are also intent on optimising information usage through e-sharing platforms and web communities (folksonomies, as known).

The upshot of what Jonas seemed to be saying is that, if search is the newly enthroned queen, content remains king. That can only be good news for B2B publishers of paid-for content - not least because most of us have thus far had only limited returns from the web. Many have dabbled in search engine marketing (paid ad words), hoping to devise a metric on what it might cost to generate paying customers (as opposed to surfers). Others have spent money on search engine optimisation to drive traffic, registrants and customers to their sites - and have been willing to commoditise some of their precious, paid-for content along the way.

What we hadn’t considered is that Google and co could become tomorrow’s aggregators and distributors of paid-for content: that search engines might turn out to be a new breed of subscription super-agent, boasting almost infinite reach. Which would tie in with what Rory Brown, marketing director at Incisive Media, and speaking from the publisher side of the fence, pointed out: ‘search engines are the greatest marketing tool ever.’

MSN’s turn

Now, when it comes to world domination, no line up would be complete without Microsoft, represented by David Graham, search business manager of MSN.co.uk. If anyone had failed to warm to their new best friend, Yahoo!, it was now MSN’s turn to ingratiate itself: ‘We want to develop an online revenue stream for publishers,’ proclaimed Graham. ‘We want to help drive subscription revenues for publishers,’ elaborated Graham. ‘We don’t want to own or control content,’ assured Graham. Not yet, anyway.

So, it’s official: search engines are looking for worldwide domination of the web. However, the search engines are now beginning to wake up to the fact that, in order to satisfy increasingly specialised queries, they will need to partner with publishers of paid-for content to achieve their ends. And if they do eventually get around to distributing and selling paid-for content, B2B publishers seem remarkably well placed to take advantage. After all, we have lots of value added, niche content and, unlike our B2C cousins, alot less to lose in terms of advertising revenues which are increasingly migrating somewhere cyber. Had Christmas come early?