Web Increasingly Cluttered By Sites Full of Paid Links

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, August 11, 2005

Search-related advertising is fueling a new wave of Web sites that seem to have as much appeal as a cheesy Hollywood set. That's because many are created to look good to search engines, much as fake scenery fools TV cameras.

Everywhere I turn online these days I stumble over junky sites that do little more than clutter up the search results at Google and Yahoo.

Consider Angry.com, a site displaying paid links to self-help tapes, videos and other "anger management" products on the left, and additional sponsored links to topics having nothing to do with anger on the right. The site is purely an advertising directory, much of it unrelated to what visitors are probably seeking.

The people behind Angry.com and similar sites hope to capitalize on the rise of search advertising as the Web's leading way to make money, a phenomenon that has accelerated since Google and Yahoo found ways to distribute the ads they sell to thousands of other sites around the Web.

Search ads started as simple text links displayed next to regular results when you type a word like "camera" into a search box. Every time viewers click on one of the advertising links, the advertiser pays the search company.

Google and Yahoo have programs that allow those ads to be displayed on other Web sites and share the ad revenue with those site publishers, and Web sites have proliferated to take advantage of that. Some of the sites get you there under false pretenses, suggesting that you'll find articles about cameras but displaying only paid links of marginal relevance.

For example: Cameraz.com, where people wind up when they try to type "cameras.com" into their Web browser address bar but misspell it. Like Angry.com, Cameraz.com is an advertising directory with a list of camera links, and ads for sites unrelated to photography. And when you go to leave, up pops a small box asking if you'd like to reset your home page to another ad directory, at Searching.net.

All three sites are owned by Marchex Inc., a Seattle-based search marketing firm that sold stock to the public last year and is one of many companies trying to ride the boom in search engine advertising, which generated about $4 billion in revenue last year. Marchex picked up those Web addresses and more than 100,000 others last year when it bought Name Development Ltd. for $164 million.

This week, Marchex rolled out more than 50 Web sites based on Zip codes, such as 20010.com for Washington D.C., each featuring local weather, maps and sponsored links to local businesses. It announced plans to generate similar sites for almost all 42,500 Zip codes in the United States.

Great, I thought as I listened to Marchex executives discuss their local-site strategy on a conference call this week. That's just what the Web needs, thousands more destination pages with long lists of paid links.

Marchex contends that its strategy, which relies partly on what it calls "direct navigation," or people typing addresses into their Web browsers, will provide real value to Web surfers because it will gradually add real information to its many sites.

"We are very focused on finding and aggregating names that are generic in nature and fully defensible, and then building those sites into destinations rather than just lists of ads," Marchex president and chief operating officer John Keister said in a phone interview.

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