April 15, 1999

Alta Vista Invites Advertisers to Pay for Top Ranking

Alta Vista, one of the leading services that search for information on the World Wide Web, is inviting advertisers to pay for the right to be listed atop its search results.

Even though advertising, both explicit and hidden, permeates most Web sites, the major search services have until now insisted that the search rankings themselves are produced objectively according to computer formulas and are not for sale.

Small businesses worry about being able to compete on search engines.

The move comes as more and more Internet services, struggling to increase revenue and justify their fantastic stock market valuations, are selling advertising in forms that could well be confused for objective information.

For example,, the bookstore, has started selling publishers the right to prominent reviews by Amazon's editors.

Alta Vista is owned by the Compaq Computer Corporation, which wants to build up its revenue quickly in order to sell a portion of Alta Vista in an initial public stock offering later this year. In February, Alta Vista was the 13th most popular site on the Internet, according to Media Metrix, which measures Web traffic.

The Alta Vista search result program was reported Tuesday by Wired News, an on-line news service. Doubleclick, the company that sells advertising for Alta Vista, promoted the program in a recent E-mail message to potential customers.

"When users perform keyword searches on Alta Vista, what is the first listing they see?" the message said. "Now it can be your company's listing." The message said Alta Vista was auctioning off the right to be listed in the first two positions to the highest bidders.

Kurt Lozert, the general manager of Alta Vista's search service, argues that when the program is disclosed it will not be confusing.

"We want to make it clear that we haven't changed our core index, but we want to offer additional ways for users to find some results that are interesting," he said. "We've tested a number of concepts so it will be very clear to users this is not the index results. These will be boxed, say, or there will be a red thing that says this is an advertisement."

Experts on on-line publishing say that the details of these graphic devices will determine whether the program is in fact misleading.

"It's largely a design issue of how they present the paid for selections," said Larry Pryor, the director of the on-line journalism program at the University of Southern California. "If they try to be subtle about it and slide it by so people can't tell, it's a terrible problem."

After a flurry of E-mail from customers criticizing its paid placement of reviews, Amazon decided to identify which reviews are subsidized, although this disclosure is not adjacent to the actual reviews.

Alta Vista's plan has also raised worries among small businesses that have come to rely on free listing on search engines to bring business to their Web sites.

"Search engines are one of the great equalizers of the Web," said John Heard, the president of Beyond Engineering, a consulting concern in Laharpe, Kan. "It lets a mom-and-pop business selling flowers compete with 1-800-Flowers. If everything is converted to paid advertising, then all the business will go to those with the deepest pockets."

Alta Vista is partly copying the business model of, an Internet search site that consists entirely of paid listings.

But in Goto's search results, each listing is explicitly accompanied by the amount that the advertiser will pay the site if a user clicks on the link.

"We have confidence that advertising adds value to results, just like the Yellow Pages," Jeffrey Brewer, the company's chief executive, said.

Search engines are especially potent advertising vehicles because so many people use them when they are researching products to buy. But other than Goto, none of the sites have sold positions in their search results.

"I have tried to get each of the search engines to alter their search results to put my clients on top," said Michael Golden, the head of the New York office of Organic Online, an agency that represents many on-line stores.

"They won't do it, and frankly that's a good thing."

And most of them said they remained committed to that policy. "We don't sell our search results -- never have, never will," said Melissa Walia, public relations manager for Excite, another search engine.

What Excite and most of the other search services have done, however, is to sell advertisements of all shapes and sizes that are placed above and to the side of search results.

Type "Viagra" into Lycos, for example, and the screen shows a graphical advertisement for an on-line clinic that proscribes sells Viagra. Below that is a text link, with the ambiguous marking "Bullseye" that in fact is an ad for another clinic. And to the side is an ad for a book on Viagra from Barnes & Noble. A user would have to move to the second page of the results to find the actual list of Web pages about Viagra.

The search services argue that all this advertising actually benefits users, because it is often more likely to be relevant to users than their other search results.

"If you type in 'computer,' are you looking to buy a computer, fix a computer, or research the history of computers?" said Celia Francis, the director of search marketing for Alta Vista. The paid placements, she argued, are more likely to be useful to users than a list of pages on which the word "computer" appears.

But Evan Thornley, the chief executive of LookSmart, a small Internet search and directory service, contends that consumers are starting to rebel against many of these ads.

"The short-term economics are in favor of flogging every piece of real estate that you have," he said. "But the long-term economics say that you also want to have a business at the end of the day."

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