When Search Engines Become Publishers

By Josh Catone
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Last week we wrote about an interesting study from Compete that found that Yahoo! actually bests Google in paid search when you look at percentage of paid referrals vs. total referrals. The data, though, as we pointed out, actually indicates that the end user search experience on Yahoo! is worse than on Google.

The reason is that there are two types of searches. The type where you want to page through results and find detailed information about a topic, and the type where you want an instant, specific answer. At the first type of search, some might argue that big three search engines — Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft Live — perform more or less equally. But for the latter variety of searches, Google appears to be the clear leader.

The search engines provide those instant answers by becoming publishers of information rather than just indexers and organizers. For example, as we noted in our post last week, a search for [ounces in a shot] on Google returns a result from the built in unit conversion calculator: “1 shot = 1.5 US fluid ounces”

This type of search is almost impossible to monetize, because a user who has an instant answer has is almost certainly not going to click on an advert. But, it stands to reason that the better a search engine delivers answers for these “instant information” type searches, the more likely users are to return to that search engine for the more easily monetizable broad information searches.

Google has a ton of these built in search tools. Users can get instant answers from Google on the weather, stock quotes, sports scores, currency conversions, maps, flight status, dictionary definitions, and more. Both Yahoo! and Microsoft are playing catch up, but each also now offers an impressive list of their own instant information search tools.

Yahoo!’s list is actually arguably more impressive that Google’s in many ways. Their “search shortcuts” can do almost everything Google’s tools can, as well as deliver additional information like gas prices and traffic conditions. Shortcuts, as they’re called on Yahoo!, generally stand out less in SERPs than the instant information results do on Google — which could contribute to the public perception that Google does a better job at providing instant information.

Microsoft has the longest way to go to catch up to the other two — and that’s evidenced by their distant third, single-digit share of the search market. In a blog post this week, Live Search Product Manager Theo Vachovsky outlined three instant info search tools that Microsoft has turned on right now: traffic information, encyclopedia queries, and horoscopes. They actually work really well — better than similar shortcuts at Yahoo! (Google doesn’t have search tools these areas). A search for [When is the vernal equinox] on Live provides a clear answer via their encyclopedia widget, for example (Friday, March 20, 2009 is the next one). Google and Yahoo! come up empty (though Yahoo! defines it via their dictionary shortcut, and Google points to a Wikipedia page in the top spot that has the answer).

Of course, as we said, the way these search engines offer these answer is by publishing content. They’re slowly becoming publishers. Microsoft’s Live Search encyclopedia results are delivered via the Encarta encyclopedia (which they own), for example, while Yahoo!’s dictionary results come from American Heritage, and Google’s sports scores come via STATS, Inc. Those partnerships give automatic top billing in search results to a single company (or to an internal property).

This is less blatant than Google’s Knol, a Wikipedia-like user generated content site that we wrote about in July, but has more or less the same result of the search engines competing with the sites they index. If Yahoo! can serve gas prices in the top spot of its search results automatically, for example, what happens to sites like GasBuddy.com that rely on search traffic to bring in visitors?

In July, Jeff Jarvis gave some advice to Google about Knol, “Stop before it’s too late. Competing with those you serve — from a position of unbeatable advantage — isn’t just bad business. It’s evil.”

The same could be said of instant information search tools. What’s your take?

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  • Clenard

    While I agree that these Search Engines tend to go a little too far in “competition” against those they serve, I also see it as fair play…

    Look, they’re in the Information Business. They serve the needs of those who seek advice from these “Search Engines”. Sure, some businesses rely on Google, Yahoo and MSN to HELP THEIR Businesses, but what agreement did they sign?

    It’s just Business baby! =)

    These Search Engines have a great strategy, if you ask me. Value Added, to the max. It’s what Customer Retention, and Acquisition, is all about.

  • But I am sure – every search engine want there searcher back to them. I completely understand its business – So what ? Google is not doing business but its favorite of all , watch reviews, polls etc you will find Google is People choice ! No shock why , because Google is doing business with ethics :)

    Cheers !

  • Whatever is good for Google is good for the blogger, right? How many people will begin to rely on secondary search tools as the primary means of research? But offering it will help Google stay on top, and since it is Google for whom we optimize, I say it could ultimately be a good thing for the web in general.

  • Clenard

    @Pavan – Google is doing the same thing as Yahoo!

    If they didn’t compete with these other Engines on different levels, as well as the same levels, they would lose a major advantage.

    I don’t believe anyone truly believes Google is anymore ethical than Yahoo!…although, I’m sure they do when it comes to Microsoft (nobody trusts the Big corporations, although Google is just as big these days).

    Other than that, I’m not sure what you’re referring to.

    @egracecreative – what’s good for Google isn’t always good for the Blogger. How are PPC ads good for the blogger? How is the Finance and News section good for the Stock Investment blogger?

    They take a lot of traffic away from bloggers, but it’s THEIR site. They don’t have to do anything for Webmasters or Bloggers…they build their system for THEIR clients, the searcher. The Blogger is not their client. Actually, the Blogger is simply a referral from Google IF Google finds them to be credible.


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  • jennysmith

    In an effort to provide the best user experience possible, search engines are slowly becoming publishers. That’s a win for users, who get instant answers to many search queries, but it may be a lose for web publishers who find.


  • Stevie D

    The Yahoo shortcuts are all very well, but it seems that they only work in the Untied States, and that the rest of the world gets nothing from them at the moment…

  • jpchasepoint

    Oh do I ever have to agree with this post. When these engines cross into the content realm, while still providing search results its a huge conflict of interest.

    Be wary to everyone who runs any sort of content driven site as these power houses start to take over the search results its going to be you who is hurt the most

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  • Cathy

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  • bsmbahamas

    Do you guys that use amazon know how much they track about their users? Pretty soon they’ll be publishing books too, as they already have a huge amount of users.

    Rather than list a new PHP book, they’ll simply partner with the author for the content, and handle the entire publishing and editting part and most likely handle the credit card processing too.

    They’ll probably make 80% of each sale, but the end users will think their just buying another book via amazon, and they’ll probably never disclose that they published the book.

    i guess its just business, after all if i sell an affiliate product that does very well, I’d strongly consider creating my own product on the same topic and create my own affiliate program for it, rather than remain an affiliate.