The State of Paid Inclusion

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Keeping paid and earned media separate is challenging for marketers, advertisers and search engines, but a recent move by Yahoo is blurring an important line. Here’s what Web professionals need to know.

Yahoo ended its paid inclusion program back in 2009, but the messy business recently resurfaced in the form of an intermingled, ad-sponsored search result for dating.

In this search, of the 13, above-the-fold items listed on Yahoo’s results page, only two are organic search results (DateHookup.com and Match.com). This not only makes first-page results harder and more expensive to come by, but there’s another, more serious issue with the Match.com listing. Is it earned (a natural listing) or paid (an advertisement) or… both? Mix & Mingle By the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) decadeold definition, the practice of paid inclusion can take many forms. One is, “where paid sites are intermingled among non-paid sites.”

In 2002, the FTC wrote, “The intermingling of non-paid Web sites with paid-inclusion websites in the search database may cause consumer confusion and mislead consumers as to the reasons for a website’s or URL’s inclusion in the search results. If the program distorts rankings, the program or its impact on rankings should be prominently disclosed.”

The FTC does not believe that all paid inclusion is bad, however. The commission stated (http://wsm.co/FTC2002) that if paid inclusion does not distort the ranking of a website or URL, many of these programs provide benefits to consumers by giving them a greater number of choices in search results lists.

More choices are not characteristic of Yahoo’s past or current practices, but blurring the lines between paid and earned media seems to be. In 2010, Match.com became Yahoo’s exclusive online dating provider. Q4 2012, the business Web saw Yahoo’s quiet return to paid inclusion with a Match.com advertisement within organic results. Yahoo promoted this program in its advertising blog in Dec. 2012. “Cost-Per-Lead (CPL) for Search Ads lets you add a contact form to your listings — increasing searcher engagement and encouraging users to provide valuable information, like demographics, email addresses and even their ‘digits.’ And the best part is, you pay only when users complete your form.” Additionally, Yahoo’s internal data reports the new ad format yielded a 6 percent increase in click-through rate.

Another way to look at Match.com’s CPL search ad is as an “advertorial.” For the unfamiliar, this type of marketing campaign (often found in magazines) is the practice of creating a paid advertisement to appear like editorial content. These print ads, like Match.com’s search ad, must disclose its ad or advertorial status, but if companies are honest, the idea is for consumers not to notice. Online, Yahoo and Match.com disclose this with small, light gray text, “Ad from Match.com.”

Consumer Impact

Some may perceive Yahoo’s promotion of paid ads within non-paid results as misleading, if not unethical. Why would Yahoo risk it? Well, consumers don’t trust ads served in search engine results, and they’re getting pretty good at ignoring them too. According to a Nielsen Survey, Q3 2011, only 40 percent of consumers trust search engine ads (paid media) to help in their buying decisions. Besides personal recommendations and consumer opinions posted online, editorial content (earned media) and branded websites (owned media) remain the other top-two mediums consumers trust for help in purchasing decisions. If Yahoo can make the difference between owned, earned and paid media murky, they can offer advertisers an easier way “to capture attention and leads via organic search results,” even if it’s paid for.

We’ll assume you run your business with a white hat, but we also know you want to capitalize on the majority of online experiences that begin with a search engine. Before you drink Yahoo’s Kool-Aid, know that the search engine is likely treading on very thin ice with the FTC in relation to this program. If Yahoo ever plans to extend its paidinclusion program, it may warrant further exploration from performance advertisers. Until then, the issue is one to watch.

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