Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Search Insider: Speculating In (Online) Real Estate

Speculating In (Online) Real Estate

FORGET THE SUBPRIME COLLAPSE; THE Internet is where it's at for investing in real estate.

Given the near-infinite number of Web pages, and the exponential addition of new ones, you would think that online real estate would be easy to come by. Unfortunately for advertisers, widget-makers, and plug-in developers, this isn't the case.

First we had pop-ups: millions and millions of pop-ups. Infinite real estate, maximum annoyance, minimum ROI.

Next, somebody entrepreneurial figured out that you could add toolbars to browsers. We've since learned that the top of the browser is the most limited real estate out there. The more you add to it, the less space you have for content, and people tend to be pretty protective of their content.

The latest trend is adding information directly on top of search pages. Right now I've got Surf Canyon and AVG installed; they both plant an icon at the end of each search result. The AVG one is usually a green check, which on mouse-over opens a nice-sized window telling me there's nothing to worry about. (On "The Simpsons" yesterday, Homer invented a gadget that squealed unbearably. "THIS IS AN OK-ALARM," he explained, as Marge and Bart covered their ears. "IT BEEPS EVERY THREE SECONDS AS LONG AS NOTHING'S WRONG.") The more useful Surf Canyon icon digs up results similar to the one you're looking at from deeper in the SERPs, and inserts them wherever you are on the page. In addition, it digs up recommended sponsored links, and inserts them at the top of the page and at the bottom of the list on the righthand side.

I love this idea for a few reasons. It fits neatly into what the user is already doing at the time: no upskilling or behavioral change necessary. It integrates beautifully with the existing real estate. It offers something of genuine value to the consumer.

I don't know if Surf Canyon is making any money off its plug-in, but its approach exemplifies what made Google so successful: delivering what people want, when and how they want it.

If you're looking at search results, it makes sense to get more search results. If you're looking at sponsored links, it makes sense to get more sponsored links.

On the other hand, if you're superpoking someone you haven't seen since the third grade, it doesn't make sense to see an ad for Blockbuster.

Most Web start-ups have no idea how they're going to get money from whatever cool thing they've just developed; Google was one of them, once upon a time. Unfortunately, thanks to Google's success, the de facto and unimaginative answer to the monetization question is advertising. But Google didn't just become successful by selling advertising; it became successful by selling advertising that was context-appropriate to what the user was already doing at the time.

If you choose to co-opt some of the limited real estate available on Web pages -- via toolbars, plug-ins, or icons -- know this: People get impatient really quickly. They are on the Internet for a reason, and your land grab better not block their view. You'd better not try to monetize your already-annoying green check mark with a giant pop-up ad I'm not interested in. (Whoops... too late.)

In the virtual property market, it's not enough just to like the house. You also have to like the property, the street, the neighborhood, the city, and all of those things have to work well together.

Good luck.

Kaila Colbin blogs for VortexDNA, whose technology can improve relevance for search engines, ecommerce sites, or any other recommendation service.

Search Insider for Tuesday, July 1, 2008:

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