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Marketers: Look Past Paid Search to News

TORONTO -- Is it time for search engine marketers to look beyond their tried and true formats to the growing popularity of news-based searches (if they haven't already)?

The question emerged at the Search Engine Strategies Conference & Expo here, during a pair of afternoon sessions about optimizing non-HTML content and balancing between paid and free search engine listings. The parent company of this publication, Jupitermedia, is producing the conference.

Since the dawn of the Search Engine era, standard HTML files have always been the easiest to index and have arguably always dominated search engine listings. Standard wisdom during the last nine plus years with search engines suggests that non-HTML files such as Macromedia Flash, PDFs and general audio and video files, do not index well, if at all, with major search engines.

A panel discussion on the topic moderated by Jupiter Research Analyst Nate Elliot attempted to change that perception with very limited success.

Gregory Markel, president of Infuse Creative, said the new "I, Robot" Web site for the upcoming Will Smith movie, which is built mostly in Flash, does not index well (if at all) in search engines. Markel noted that Macromedia is now working on strategies to further improve the ability of Flash files to be more search engine friendly, but admitted that good old HTML text is still superior at present.

Shari Thurow, author of the book "Search Engine Visibility," said PDFs have to be formatted with text, as opposed to images, so that search engines could better index them.

With other forms of rich media such as audio and video, Karen Howe, general manager of AOL's recently-acquired Singingfish, an audio/video search engine, believes that the search engines themselves need to look at non-HTML content in different ways. Howe claimed that six out of the top 10 searches on Google in 2003 were for multimedia related content. She said throughout 2003, searches on Singingfish's audio and video index increased more than 300 percent.

But Tim Mayer, Yahoo! director of product management, said he doesn't see the current value of indexing rich media files. Take AlltheWeb.com, which was acquired by Overture, which in turn acquired by Yahoo! He said it is the only Yahoo! property that actively indexed rich media files. "We hope in the future we'll be able to see value in this and provide value to the user but at this point, we just haven't seen any benefit yet," he said.

However, Mayer did admit that Yahoo! itself currently has limitations that just don't make it easy to index rich media effectively. "We know we have limits in searching different file formats," Mayer said. "We obviously need to do a better job of indexing these different file formats."

But news search and indexing is another story. Yahoo! currently offers RSS news feeds within its revised Yahoo! search technology, a move that Mayer touted as a powerful step forward for search engines. To date, Google does not yet offer a similar or comparable RSS service and recently announced that it has no current plans to offer such a feature.

During another panel discussion about how to strike a balance between paid and organic (free) listings, Greg Jarbo of SEO-PR suggested marketers mull a third option for improving placement: news search.

Jarbo said Yahoo! News' audience of 25 million active users is larger than the U.S audience of CNN. Although Google's news pages lag behind with some four million users, the number is more popular than the venerable BBC.com. Jarbo quipped that even though an overwhelming number of journalists use the two services, there is no way that there are almost 30 million journalists on the planet, leading him to surmise that regular users are making great use of news search as well.

Jarbo recounted a case involving his client Southwest Airlines, which submitted an optimized press release that was picked up by the news search engines. The client counted 42,000 direct measurable responses.

"You can beat mainstream media," Jarbo said. "The news search sites have now become media outlets themselves."