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SuperPages.com's PPC Play

On March 1, a redesigned version of Verizon's SuperPages.com online business listings goes live. It will change not only how users get results but the results they get: For the first time, SuperPages.com listings will feature its own pay-per-click advertisers at the top of each page.

The pay-per-click listings are the fruit of a partnership with paid search provider FindWhat.com , announced in December. With FindWhat.com's technology and Verizon's 2,600-strong sales and customer service infrastructure, the nation's largest telco hopes to boost ad revenue and increase its share of the local search market by getting the millions of small local businesses without Web presences online.

However, while SuperPages.com syndicates its listings to portals including MSN and InfoSpace , users of those sites won't see the pay-per-click ads, at least for now. The company said it's in talks with its partners about delivering PPC ads -- and, presumably, some of that PPC revenue.

The seven-year-old SuperPages.com handles close to 920 million searches, according to director of strategic planning Jim Palma -- and those people are not looky-loos. Palma said some 87 percent of SuperPages.com visitors contact an advertiser, and about 28 percent end up spending money.

That's a strong attraction for local advertisers -- and it's something sales reps already pitch when selling print listings and Verizon's Web development services. But search engine marketing is confusing even for experienced Web marketers, and it's getting more complicated all the time. Palma said salespeople have already begun pitching the new inventory, even as they and the customer service staff are being trained.

"Verizon is already a significant player in providing services to portals," said Gary Stein, an analyst with Jupiter Research, which shares a corporate parent with this publication. "They have the competitive advantage everyone wants: the people to knock on the door of the CPA on the sixteenth floor." The company also has a large interactive division that builds Web sites for yellow pages advertisers. Stein said Verizon would make good use of this competitive advantage.

The interface and search routines will be changed to accommodate two kinds of searchers: those who know exactly what they're looking for and type in refined search terms, and those who enter a one-word query. Palma said about half of SuperPages.com users simply type in the business name. When a location isn't originally specified, the technology will return a national or regional pay-per-click advertiser. If a location is part of the original query, the site will return listings for relevant local advertisers, with PPC advertisers at the top.

On some results pages, PPC ads also appear on the right hand side of natural search results. FindWhat.com's search technology uses the merchant's reported address as the location.

Although searchers can choose to look at a business profile, e-mail the company or get the phone number, businesses will only pay for one click per visitor. To shield small local advertisers from the madness of keyword optimization, Verizon has "bucketized" keywords. A company that buys "plumber," for example, will show up in a variety of searches for related terms and misspellings.

The new SuperPages.com maintains the original flat rate model as well. "A lot of advertisers like the idea they can pay a flat rate and be found in the same place all the time. We accommodate them and at the same time allow the PPC model to emerge," Palma said.

Verizon and FindWhat.com will create a self-service portal where PPC advertisers can sign up, choose categories, update their information and see how their campaigns are doing. Palma said this capability could be useful for both local and national advertisers that want to change their geographic spread. For example, a small contractor could expand the area in which the company ads appeared when business was slow, and then contract to a smaller area in the busiest times.

"A number of advertisers want to go online and provision this themselves," Palma said. For the rest, there's customer service. "We're not going to leave you hanging if you need some assistance."

From a user's point of view, the interface and search structure have been improved, said Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch, which is owned by internetnews.com's corporate parent.. They're now more like typical search pages, a move that white and yellow pages listings provider InfoSpace made last year.

Internet yellow pages providers are scrambling to preserve share of the small and local business market, because search providers including Google and Yahoo!'s Overture are adding local search -- and the PPC listings to monetize it. There are plenty of deals between yellow pages providers and search players to place paid ads on the listings pages, while search players are moving to get local on their own. Overture has said it's developing a local product that will be released later this year, while Google launched a beta program to allow AdWords advertisers to target their paid listings regionally. Google also is testing geographically targeted search.

But the search engines are falling behind, according to Jupiter's Stein. Both Google's and Overture's local search efforts are still buried in development. Meanwhile, Verizon is "a player of significance that's going to stake its whole business on it." Stein said the opportunity in local search is many times bigger than the total search market today. "Someone has to break into that space."

However, entrenched consumer searching habits may be hard to break. "No matter how much you improve SuperPages.com, you'll have difficulty pulling search engine users over to you," Sullivan said.

And Sullivan was doubtful that local businesses will get on board with SuperPages.com's pay-per-click ads. "Local people don't want to do PPC because it's so confusing," he said. "So giving them this portal with all these options they don't understand isn't going to do it."

All SuperPages.com is doing is ensuring that its savvier clients can pay on a cost-per-click basis, Sullivan said. But the new availability of white-hot PPC ads could make the site a more attractive partner. Said Sullivan, "It has a lot of potential to keep them tight with their partners."