A New Tool From Google Alarms Sites
By BOB TEDESCHI
Retailers and publishers have fought hard to work their way up in the ranking of Google’s search results and refine the search features of their own Web sites to help users once they arrive. Now, Google is taking a greater role in helping users search within particular sites. And some of the same retailers and publishers are not happy about it.
This month, the company introduced a search-within-search feature that lets users stay on Google to find pages on popular sites like those of The Washington Post, Wikipedia, The New York Times, Wal-Mart and others. The search box appears when someone enters the name of certain Web addresses or company names — say, “Best Buy” — rather than entering a request like “cellphones.”
The results of the search are almost all individual company pages. Google tops those results with a link to the home page of the Web site in question, adds another search box, and offers users the chance to let Google search for certain things within that site.
The problem, for some in the industry, is that when someone enters a term into that secondary search box, Google will display ads for competing sites, thereby profiting from ads it sells against the brand. The feature also keeps users searching on Google pages and not pages of the destination Web site.
Analysts generally praise the feature as helping users save steps, but for Web publishers and retailers, there are trade-offs. While the service could help increase traffic, some users could be siphoned away as Google uses the prominence of the brands to sell ads, typically to competing companies.
“Google is showing a level of aggressiveness with this that’s just not needed,” said Alan Rimm-Kaufman, a former executive with the electronics retailer Crutchfield who is now an Internet consultant. Google’s aggressiveness, Mr. Rimm-Kaufman said, ignores a user’s desire to reach a specific destination and it costs those Web sites visitors.
Take, for instance, a situation last week, when users of Google searched The Washington Post and were given a secondary search box. Those who typed “jobs” into that second box saw related results for The Post’s employment pages, but the results were bordered by ads for competing employment sites like CareerBuilder or Monster.com.
So even though users began the process by stating their intention to reach The Post, Google’s ads steered at least some of them to competitors. Similar situations arose when users relied on Google to search nytimes.com.
While executives of both The Times and Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive declined to comment, plenty of others assailed Google over what they saw as a heavy-handed approach.
Google said it had not received many complaints directly from companies, but some search-engine specialists were quick to pounce when the company announced its service. Ann Smarty, a search-engine marketing consultant who originated the SeoSmarty.com blog, speculated that the new feature “could mean bad news” for sites. Other search-marketing specialists echoed her sentiments, and brands began to follow.
“Eventually this could be a huge problem if Google starts throwing this out there to all brands,” said Pinny Gniwisch, vice president for marketing of Ice.com, an online jeweler. Mr. Gniwisch, who is also on the board of Shop.org, an online retail industry group, said Google’s new feature did not appear when users searched for Ice.com, but he said he would object if it did. “This is essentially giving the customer a way to leave a search for your site,” he said.
Donna L. Hoffman, co-director of the Sloan Center for Internet Retailing, at the University of California, Riverside, predicted that Internet users “will really like this because it’s probably a better way to search a site than going to the sites themselves. “
“But as consumers appreciate this more, there’ll be more and more outcry from companies.” Ms. Hoffman said. Consumers who see advertisements on Google when they search The Post’s or The Times’s content might view the ads as carrying the endorsement of those news publishers.
“Why would I advertise on those other sites when I could just advertise on Google and piggyback on the equity of the other brands?” Ms. Hoffman said.
Mr. Rimm-Kaufman said the new Google service also diminishes a Web publisher’s role in helping users find potentially useful content. “You may want to editorialize differently when someone searches, and maybe put a premium on certain reporters or content,” he said. “This moves you further out of the loop.”
Retailers, Mr. Rimm-Kaufman added, should be even more leery of this feature, and not because they will lose sales to competitors whose ads appear in Google’s refined search results. More sophisticated retail sites have search functions that take into account a customer’s past behavior to suggest certain items, as well as more accurate data on which items are in stock.
“Some of our retail clients have pretty horrible site search,” he said. “So for them, this will be a benefit. For our larger clients, we’ll probably ask Google to turn this off.”
That is the route that Amazon has apparently chosen. The retailer declined to comment for this article, but last week Google’s search-within-search function did not appear when users entered “amazon.com” into the initial search box.
According to a Google spokeswoman, the company has honored such requests from “a couple” of unnamed businesses. These companies, however, may not be able to reverse their decisions.
“So we ask them to try it out and see if they want it removed,” the spokeswoman said. “We think it could be a really useful feature.”
She added that the feature was currently available for an undisclosed, but relatively small, number of sites, and appeared when Google detected a high probability that a user wanted more refined search results within a specific site. While Google has not received much negative feedback on the service, she said, the company could change it in the future.
Some online publishers see little wrong with the new service. James Spanfeller, chief executive of Forbes.com, said, “I think this is interesting, and my hat’s off to Google.”
Mr. Spanfeller said he suspected that Google was “seeing a huge amount of searches on their service from folks trying to find a piece of content written by a name-brand publisher.”
“Google is probably trying to get additional usage out of their product,” he added, ”and monetize those page views.”
Web publishers, Mr. Spanfeller said, might not like that Google is selling ads against their brands. Nor, he said, would they like having to buy ads on the new search service to help ensure that users who were headed to their sites through Google actually got there.
But, Mr. Spanfeller said, they will not suffer much economic damage, over all, from the new service. “Not to be cavalier about it,” he said, “but sites like The Post and Forbes, which have strong enough brand names, won’t lose more than a very small percentage of people who will go to other sites.”
Pam Horan, president of the Online Publishers Association, an industry trade group, said online executives were growing accustomed to the idea that users often did not find their company’s content through the site’s own search box or its front page. More often than not, she said, users would find links to specific articles or products on blogs, search engines or other sites, and navigate to that page.
“So publishers are building their sites,” Ms. Horan said, “to make sure the experience is the same, whether users are coming in through the front door or the side.”
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company