“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood”
– Yahoo! SSP (with apologies to The Animals)
Although not publicly confirmed by Yahoo! at the time of writing, it seems that the Search Submit Pro program will be terminated at the end of this year. Often referred to as Paid Inclusion, this powerful, effective and highly profitable program has been much maligned historically by people who did not really understand it, or who were not able to achieve reseller status to benefit from it.
I have had a long personal history with the program, originally with Decide Interactive, one of the first resellers of the program and the originator of Yahoo!’s less-well-known Trusted Feed Generator (TFG) program. Through Decide Interactive’s acquisition by 24/7 Real Media and subsequently by WPP, I have seen and been actively involved in the growth and evolution of SSP for 8 years now across hundreds of advertisers and hundreds of millions in spend (I would estimate that my past companies have managed about 25% of Yahoo’s SSP revenues, give or take, depending on the year). So yes I am biased through commerce, but I also know the product very well. If SSP must RIP, then please indulge me in this eulogy.
HISTORY OF SSP
Back in 2001, portals and indexes were separate. Inktomi, Fast and Altavista provided the indexes for Yahoo, MSN etc. on limited term licenses. Google was rolling its own, but didn’t dominate like it does now. It was a much more even 3-horse race back then. The value was seen in owning the users, not in the results, and the users were less sophisticated. Far fewer people knew how to customize their start page or search engine, toolbars were far less common, and companies like LookSmart were still creating manual directories. Yahoo! had a good grip on the internet user, and would license the best solution on the market each time it evaluated vendors, so all the innovation was with the indexes.
Crawl frequency was monthly at best, yet database driven content (classifieds, jobs, retail inventory etc) changed more frequently. If an engine indexed dynamic content, it ran the risk that that content would be removed before the index was refreshed, leaving a 404 error for users. So, as a consequence the indexes didn’t crawl pages with a “?” in a URL, meaning that all of the most timely, and often most relevant content was absent from the indexes. We complain about the slow advent of true realtime search – imagine a world where you couldn’t get any news articles, product level pages, or other dynamic content in the search results at all! It was not that long ago. The engine wars consisted of “Pages Indexed” battles, publicized and promoted as a barometer for comprehensiveness.
So obviously this provided an opportunity for ingenuity – retailers, publishers and classified sites wanted their content indexed, the index owners wanted this content to inflate page count and provide differentiation, and there was a business model waiting to be invented. We at Decide Interactive wrote a white paper about the value of accepting feeds from trusted providers in a proscribed format, and the resultant incremental revenue opportunity for charging on a per URL or CPC basis. Directories were already charging for URL inclusion so this wasn’t a stretch. I wouldn’t be surprised if other companies proposed similar solutions at the same time – it was an obvious case of demand looking for supply.
Inktomi was the first to adopt a “Trusted Feed” or “Paid Inclusion” program, followed quickly by Altavista and Fast. AskJeeves even had one for a while. Then the consolidation began…
In October 2002, Yahoo! bought Inktomi (interestingly it was still licensing Sponsored Links from Google at this time!) In 2003 Overture bought Fast and Altavista, and then Yahoo! bought Overture. Each of these indexes had different formats, so different XML schemas were required, presenting an opportunity for feed technologies to build 1 in many out content transformers. Yahoo! had 3 formats and distracted staff from 5 rapidly merged companies, so the reseller and outsourced market filled the gap. Decide Interactive, Position Technologies, Rawhide, Newgate, and others built tools to manage the manipulation and control of client data, and “Paid” to have it “Included” in the index.
Depending on which side of the fence you sat on, all of this was either marvelously effective, or a travesty against the purity of SEO. Not coincidentally, that fence tended to separate the resellers who could participate and benefit from the program, and the SEO’s who could not. The haves loved the control, the trackability, the ability to test different descriptions, the reporting data, the fact that it had better ROI than any other channel. The have-nots complained that the results were now full of ads. The smartest of the lot bridged both worlds and looked at SSP not simply as a PPC distribution option, but potentially as an SEO tool.
Contrary to popular misunderstanding, you never actually paid for rank with Paid Inclusion – you literally were paying for Inclusion, on a category rate-card basis, and for the opportunity to control the content which was included. Of course this meant that you could programmatically ensure that your included content was extremely well optimized, so it tended to rank well. In a way it was like a controlled and sanctioned cloaking program – the resellers were trusted to place highly optimized versions of pages into the index. A fluctuating but small (as low as 5 and as high as 30) community of resellers were responsible for controlling this portion of Yahoo’s index. Quality went up and down, often inverse to the reseller count, and Yahoo! developed very active programs for assessment and certification of reseller technologies, processes, and staff training.
EVOLUTION OF FEATURES
The program’s features evolved over the years as well – initially a program for “Product Level Pages” (retail SKUs, travel origin/destination pairs etc), Yahoo! added feed formats for “Category Level Pages” and “Top Level Pages”, allowing control over the presentation of important traffic driving pages on your site. To add value to paying for clicks on your brand terms (which many argued you would get anyway through the most basic of SEO), Yahoo! introduced Quick Links allowing testing and tracking of different traffic paths directly to deep content. This feature was unique for a while, but is not a common search experience through Google’s Site Links. Value was also added by the development of Yahoo’s “Silk” reports, providing audience geographic and demographic data, as well as impression data, for traffic through SSP.
BINGHOO AND THE END OF SSP
When the Binghoo partnership was announced this year, there was a lot of speculation that this might be the end of SSP, and that turned out to be right. I was kind of hoping that Ms. Bartz had her eye on a return to the glory days of the portal – that Yahoo! owned the audience so it didn’t need to own the content. Instead it could license the index and use tools like Search Monkey to layer in customization, personalization and differentiation. This would be what made a user choose Yahoo! instead of MSN even if both were powered by Bing – blended indexes, insertion of proprietary content, query refinement etc. Perhaps some of that is still in the plan, but it looks like we’re all going to need another way to get in front of those queries – two engine SEO is back on the table.
For me and others who have been involved in this little sub-community for years, this certainly is the end of an era. Paul McCarney, Keith Lambert, Paul Ford, Gour Lentell, David Turner, Jim Staub, Jared Luskin, Dan Boberg, Chris Bolte, John Galatea, Jason Lehmbeck, John Zimmerman, Nick Sheth, Chad Hinds, Kristen Contieri and many others – it was fun while it lasted!