Yahoo Sets Out to Prove that Advertising Search Engines Doesn’t Work

By Adam Ostrow
|  Thursday, Jan 7, 2010  |  Updated 3:31 PM PDT
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Yahoo Sets Out to Prove that Advertising Search Engines Doesn’t Work

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Following in the footsteps of many other search engines not named Google, Yahoo is setting out on a big new ad campaign to try and get users to switch to its search engine. The company has announced plans to launch an online display and terrestrial radio marketing program, featuring ads like the one pictured here.

Considering that YouTube now does more search queries than Yahoo, it’s not surprising that the company is ramping up its efforts to re-gain marketshare. But as history has taught us time after time, advertising search engines does not lead to meaningful customer gains.

The most memorable recent attempt to lure search users through advertising was Ask.com, who through a variety of confusing billboards and television ads spent roughly $100 million with the “it’s the algorithm” campaign. Ultimately, the campaign was maligned by critics and left Ask.com’s marketshare mostly unchanged, with Google still commanding upwards of 60-70% of search queries depending on which report you read. Of course, Google has famously spent $0 on advertising its search engine throughout its decade of existence.

That’s not to say that all ad campaigns are completely fruitless. Microsoft is reportedly seeing small gains by paying people to use its search engine through its Cashback Rewards program. But without such incentive, switching search engines generally entails switching one’s start page, browser toolbar, and general Web usage habits – tasks that I have a hard time believing any brand advertising campaign can help change.

Much like how Google unseated the likes of Excite, Altavista, and Yahoo by offering a superior product that people told their friends and colleagues about, meaningful gains in search are going to come through technology that wows people with its approach. So far, that technology still hasn’t surfaced, either at Yahoo or at the hundreds of startups hoping to be the next Google.

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