Meta Search Or Meta Ads?

By Danny SullivanDo a search on two different search engines, and you’ll almost certainly see differences when comparing the results each provides. That’s because major search engines commonly have different databases of listings than their competitors and because they use different methods of sorting these listings in response to searches.In short, each search engine has its own opinion of what’s relevant for a particular topic. Because of this, “meta” search services are a popular method of getting a variety of “opinions” quickly from the various major search engines.Meta search services, also called metacrawlers or meta search tools, send your query out to many major search engines at once, then bring back the results to you, saving you from having to visit each major search engine individually.What people may not realize is that many meta search services are now also bringing back paid placement listings and mixing these in among the more traditional editorial-style results that they retrieve. In fact, a Search Engine Watch survey shows that some meta search services are providing results where more than half of their listings are paid links.Of course, paid listings have also come to the major search engines over the past year. However, paid listings make up far less of the content presented by those search engines when compared to some meta search services. In addition, paid links at the major search engines are generally separated in some way from their more editorially-derived search results. In contrast, the meta search services generally do not have such delineation, making it often unclear which links are paid.The Meta Search Engine SurveySearch Engine Watch reviewed eight well-known or notable meta search services, to determine to what degree they brought back results from major search engines versus information from paid listing services. The results of the survey are designed to help you select meta search services that provide access to the widest number of major search engines, since that is the reason most people have traditionally used meta search services. The survey also helps you understand which meta search services are serving up a high proportion of paid listings.The Major Search EnginesWhat are the major search engines? Obviously, everyone has their own opinion. For this survey, the major search engines are those that provide access to unique and well-known catalogs of the web. Specifically, these are the 10 services considered “major” for this survey: AltaVista, Direct Hit, HotBot, Excite (WebCrawler), FAST Search (Lycos), Google, Inktomi (iWon), LookSmart (MSN Search), Northern Light, Open Directory (AOL Search/Netscape Search) e Yahoo.An ideal meta search service would provide access to results from all of these search engines. See the notes page for further explanation about why these search engines were selected as major and how the partnership relationships (shown in parenthesis) were factored in.Paid Placement Search EnginesAt paid placement search engines, sites are listed because they pay. There are often unpaid results also available, but these usually are buried behind paid listings for popular terms.Paid listings are not necessarily bad. In fact, some paid placement search engines do much work to ensure that the listings that they carry are somehow relevant to the search terms they appear for. Indeed, some paid placement search engines may sometimes have better results for a particular search than the “editorial” results provided by some traditional search engines.Given this, a meta search engine should not be faulted for carrying paid listings. The real concern is when they provide a large degree of paid listings in relation to the editorial-style listings that have traditionally been obtained from the major search engines.Picture it this way. Let’s say you’ve received a newspaper every day. The front page has always had articles and no ads. One day, the front page begins having a few small ads at the bottom. As time goes by, half of the front page is filled with ads. Your paper has changed from what it once was.This is what has happened with some meta search services. The ratio of “articles” in their main results has dropped. Moreover, unlike with a newspaper, it can be difficult to immediately recognize what’s an ad and what’s not.

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