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Earlier this month, Google added extra site-constrained search boxes to its results page so that searchers can query specific sites listed there more easily.
"Through experimentation, we found that presenting users with a search box as part of the result increases their likelihood of finding the exact page they are looking for," said Google software engineer Ben Lee and product manager Jack Menzel in a blog post. "So over the past few days we have been testing, and today we have fully rolled out, a search box that appears within some of the search results themselves."
While Google sees these destination search boxes as a way to make information more accessible to users, IDC search analyst Sue Feldman, in a report titled "Hijacking Affiliate Revenue: Google's New Search Within Search Tool," sees them as a risk for publishers.
"For destination site owners, particularly publishers, this is more of a threat than is at first apparent," the IDC report says.
The problem, as Feldman sees it, is that the top searches on Google are conducted to quickly pull up the Web address of popular sites like Facebook and MySpace, without worrying about URL formatting or spelling. After being presented with the desired Web link, Google users click on the link and arrive at the desired site, where they may well conduct a more specific search to reach a specific page on the destination site.
But with Google's new destination search tool, as Feldman calls it, searchers may conduct follow-up searches without leaving Google.com, and that means any ad revenue generated by this second search goes to Google. Had that search been conducted through the destination site's search box, Google would either get a percentage of revenue generated by an ad (if Google serves the ad on the destination site) or no revenue at all, if another ad provider served the destination site.
"If Google keeps the user on its site, then it keeps all the ad revenue for itself, and it may also show ads promoting competitors of the destination site for which the user is searching," the report says. "That hijacks the revenue for the destination site in two ways, by sending the searcher to another site, and by not sharing ad revenue with the affiliate."
Google says it developed this feature to improve the user search experience. "By showing ads on the results page from the 'search within a site' feature, we aim to help our users find ads that are both useful and relevant to their searches," a Google spokesperson said in an e-mail. "Our goal is to provide the best user experience, and ads that are related to searches from competing providers are useful to consumers. If a site owner wants to present sponsored listings for these searches, then that site owner can participate in the AdWords auction."
Feldman also says in her report that Google's Search Within Search may actually do a disservice to searchers by steering them away from the destination site's search engine, which may be optimized to determine relevancy with data Google doesn't have or doesn't weigh the same way. A medical site, for example, may have designed its search algorithm to surface what specific doctors believe are the most authoritative documents for a given search term. Google, on the other hand, computes relevancy in a different way, which may or may not concur with the destination site's view.
Feldman acknowledges that many small sites have poor search capabilities, but she speculates that Search Within Search is more about increasing Google's search revenue than helping sites with substandard search because the new search boxes tend to appear for large sites.
"The quandary that Google finds itself in now is that it's going gangbusters in terms of making money, but it's not growing that fast," Feldman said in a phone interview. "It's doing everything that it can to increase revenue in the short term."
The reason for this, Feldman believes, is that as people become familiar with the Internet, they tend to use search engines less, as they develop an online neighborhood and habitual patterns. She likens the situation to the way a person might use the Yellow Pages frequently after moving into a new neighborhood, but less often after becoming familiar with the area.
Yet in so doing, Google risks alienating its affiliates and other Web site owners by keeping for itself traffic and associated revenue that it would once have referred to others.