I have been aware of the existence of different types of search engine optimization for a while, including pay-per-click, which is often used synonymously with the term “paid placement.” In marketing meetings it was something that was left for our Web development staff to worry about, so it’s only now that I’m really learning about the options available for companies that want to increase or ensure placement in search engine results.
Paid placement is pretty straightforward: you pay a specific fee for guaranteed placement of your site on a search engine’s results. These sites are sometimes found at the top of a query page, but most often you see them at the right, and they are usually labeled as either “sponsored” or “paid,” something like that. Often, paid placement is on a pay-per-click basis, meaning advertisers only pay when someone clicks on a site. The fee is usually based on a bid, which determines a site’s ranking. As long as a search engine clearly labels paid placement sites, I don’t have a problem with them, since their placement is similar to banner ads.
Paid inclusion is a technique that has waned in popularity and has always been somewhat controversial because it mixes paid sites with unpaid ones in an organic search, and the paid sites may not be labeled as such. TheSearchAgency.com defines paid inclusion as “a program in which a search engine accepts payment for indexing a web site, although specific placement on a results page is not guaranteed.”
The original attraction of paid inclusion was for sites that changed regularly and wanted to ensure their updates were regularly indexed by search engines; however, the fact that indexing a site didn’t ensure ranking had to have made the technique less attractive to advertisers. I think a lot of the technique’s unpopularity—among consumers, at least—is because a site that pays for inclusion may or may not be labeled as an advertiser, depending on the search engine’s policies.
Ask.com discontinued its paid inclusion program in 2004 with CEO Jim Lanzone calling it “hypocritical to do something we need to do anyway.” Yahoo followed Ask.com’s example in 2009. However, it appears that Google has continued the program, insisting that “ads are always labeled to indicate that the information is sponsored.” But the fact that paid listings are included with editorial results at all indicates that Google is engaging in paid inclusion, despite its protests to the contrary. Even if you insist that sites aren’t guaranteed placement, if a site is paying to ensure indexing and inclusion in any kind of search, it’s paid inclusion.
In my mind, paid content should be kept separate from unpaid content, and even if you label paid content as such, as long as it appears mingled with unpaid, it’s more likely that consumers will miss the distinguishing labels.