The Separation of Church and State in Search

First published August 3, 2005 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

The people at the major search engines like to talk a lot about the separation of church and state. They use the historical reference to explain the unbreachable divide between their organic listings and the sponsored ones, and the departments that govern each. It represents some ethical buffer zone between the two sides of search.

The History of Church and State

The reference goes back to Thomas Jefferson and the U.S. constitution. It began when “a wall of separation between church and state” was entrenched in the first amendment to the constitution by restricting Congress from passing laws respecting the establishment or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

In looking at search’s use of the term, a more relevant comparison is the adoption of the term by the newspaper and journalism industry, where it described the division between the editorial and the advertising departments. The idea was that budgets spent on advertising shouldn’t have any influence over the journalistic integrity of the reporters. They should be free to pursue the story without fear of the impact it might have on advertising revenues. Good in theory, but of course, theory often breaks down in the real world.

Church and State Online

Church versus state is often a fiercely guarded concept by the keepers of the editorial content. They cite it often, and usually passionately. Search (especially Google) is no exception. The term is mentioned often when the thorny issue of organic optimization is raised. I heard Google co-founder Larry Page quoted once as saying, “If it’s good for search engine optimization, it’s bad for the user.” The whole church versus state dilemma is at the root of search’s bipolar relationship with search marketing practitioners. They love our money, but hate the fact that we want our clients to appear in the prime section of the search results page, the top three or four organic listings.

As in most things, I find this is all a matter of perspective. Search engines have their perspective, as do advertisers and the agencies that represent them in search. For a different view, let’s look at it from the user’s perspective.

Do Users Separate Sponsored and Algorithmic Search?

When we turn to a newspaper, we can do so with a number of intentions. We can be looking for news, sports scores, the latest weather, how our stock did, or perhaps we just want to do the crossword puzzle. When we find a story that catches our interest, we spend some time on that page and may see an ad that happens to be adjacent to the story. Chances are the relevancy of the advertising message to the news story we were reading is minimal. It’s more a matter of positioning and happenstance than anything. If I’m Charles Schwab and I consistently buy an ad on the stock report page, that’s about as far as my contextual targeting will go.

But what if I could tell when someone was going to the paper to look for the latest share price on one particular stock, and I placed my ad, highly targeted to that stock, right next to the stock price? Is this maintaining the idealistic standard of separating church and state? According to ConsumerReports, Ralph Nader, and many others, the answer is a resounding no!

When we do a search, we’re looking for relevant results. The search engines use the same criteria to serve both organic and sponsored results: keyword relevancy. And the results are presented on the same piece of real estate, the search engine results page. In fact, as we confirmed in our eye-tracking study, the search engines are happy to use our natural scanning behavior to ensure that sponsored ads are placed in the most prominent section of the page. Other than a small label identifying the results as being paid, there is little to distinguish the two results.

Maybe Some SEO Is Good, Mr. Page…

It seems to me that the search engines want to have their cake and eat it too. When it suits them, they’re more than happy to blur the lines between algorithmic content and paid content, using the same rules and real estate to present both. But as soon as a marketer tries to use this “hot zone” created by the engines themselves to effectively market, the search engines cry foul.

I am fully aware that there is a thriving industry that tries to constantly beat the algorithms. I, as a user, am frustrated with the pollution of results by affiliates and other aggressive marketers who use spam tactics to push garbage sites up the ranks. As a user, I want the search engines to do anything they can to clean up black-hat spam.

But the fact is, there are organic optimizers that are doing the search engines a huge favor. We have several clients that are recognized leaders in their industry. They have thousands of pages of useful content that searchers should be able to find. But, for various reasons, they aren’t in that “Golden Triangle” for the right terms. It may be that no one has tried to find out what the right terms are, or it could be a missing title tag, or site architecture that confuses the spiders, or one of a hundred other technical reasons. We’re helping Google, Yahoo!, and MSN do their jobs more effectively. Yet, as soon as I sit down at a table with a representative from an engine and the conversation turns to organic optimization, it turns awkward and within a minute I’m guaranteed to hear the words “separation of church and state.”

The fact is, despite the intentions of Thomas Jefferson, church has never been successfully separated completely from state. The real world lives somewhere in between.

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