By:Scott Buresh, Published:2004-7-28

You scroll down past the banner ads and enter your search term. You pass the “sponsored results” without a glance. You ignore the shaded results to the right, as well as the additional “sponsored results” at bottom. Hiding somewhere in the middle of it all, you finally find the results you came for.

Welcome to the world of natural search- a world where mom-and-pop shops compete with million dollar companies, where million dollar companies compete with billion dollar corporations. And, while many will argue to the contrary, the playing field is more or less level. Small companies can and do dominate their behemoth competitors in this world, for a variety of reasons.

What is natural search?
For those who aren’t quite clear what the term means, “natural” or “organic” search describes the “editorial” search results on any particular engine. These results are purported to be completely non-biased – meaning that the engine will not accept any amount of money to influence the rankings of any individual sites. This is quite different than the paid advertising that appears in “sponsored” or “featured” results, in which higher positions are rewarded to the companies willing to pay the most per visitor.

Why is natural search important?
Savvy searchers who understand the difference between paid and natural results are more likely to hold the natural results in a higher regard, much like a person reading a magazine would probably be more positively influenced by an article about a particular company than by a paid advertisement from the company.

It is also likely that natural search will become more important in the coming months. Yahoo’s new SiteMatch program, which mixes some paid results with natural results, is certain to get some close scrutiny from the FTC (even though the fees paid are not supposed to influence rankings). This type of public attention will no doubt educate some oblivious users as to what “sponsored results” actually are. More importantly, other search engines are likely to use this as a means of differentiation from Yahoo. It is no coincidence that AskJeeves announced that it was getting rid of its similar program the day after Yahoo’s new program was unveiled, claiming that it was impossible to produce unbiased results using this methodology. Microsoft also recently claimed that they were taking steps to further differentiate paid results from natural results. No matter what the end result, one probable outcome of this new attention to paid search engine advertising is that more average searchers will learn the differences between paid and natural search results, and many will instinctively favor the latter.

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