Search Scout: No Merit Badge

Search Scout is one of the features of the Gator Advertising Information Network (GAIN). Gator has a partnership with Overture Services to display keyword-based text ads. The GAIN background software monitors the web pages you visit and the information you enter into search forms. If GAIN determines that you are doing a web search, or you are visiting sites that are associated with particular keywords, Search Scout kicks into action and displays Overture advertising or other results that match the keywords.

To a search engine company like Google, Search Scout has the potential to snatch business away by diverting the user’s attention from paid Google listings. Conversely, Gator and Overture advertisers gain additional exposure and revenue through this hey-look-over-here approach. But what about the end user, what’s the benefit to them? From our experience with Search Scout, we’d say there isn’t much benefit at all, especially if you are already searching with an Overture-partner search engine like Yahoo.

Stealth Search Engine

Search Scout is unusual in that there is no way to call it up directly. For instance, neither GAIN nor any of the Gator utilities we tested had a menu item for Search Scout. (As of early November 2003, there was a domain that appeared to be an incomplete site for some future version of Search Scout that includes a browser toolbar.)

I Got Nothing: Search Scout would sometimes pop up a distracting full-screen window only to show an error message or say it had no search results.

There is one sure-fire way to see a Search Scout window: Go to any popular search engine, enter a common search term like “auto loans” or “antivirus”, and Search Scout eagerly uncloaks a full-screen window behind your original browser search. In the cases we tested, the “Scout’s Pick” and “Top sponsored links” in the Search Scout window seemed to be Overture advertisers. If that is always the case, then the criteria for Scout’s Pick would seem to be based solely on who paid the most for that particular search term.

Occasionally, Search Scout would start as if it had something important to say, but end up displaying either an error or a message that “There were no results for that search term.” Considering the disruptive nature of Search Scout’s window, it would seem to be a good idea if Gator would only pop up a distracting window if there was something useful to display.

Interface Annoyances

Not only does Search Scout lack a non-covert way for users to launch it, it also lacks any way to control how or where it displays on the desktop. It always opens a browser window covering the full size of the screen, but the window is not maximized. This window is always behind the browser window that teased Search Scout into action, but it’s hardly innocuous. Many users do not browse with a full-screen window on today’s hi-res SVGA displays; and Search Scout’s results will flash behind the active window and obscure the desktop.

There is one extremely annoying Search Scout behavior related to the size of browser windows. Normally, Internet Explorer remembers the size of the browser window that you used last time, so will open new browser windows in the same size and position that you prefer. With Search Scout active, IE opens new windows using the full-screen-but-not-maximized size that Search Scout has wired into its behavior. This becomes one of those “death by 1,000 cuts” annoyances because you are constantly resizing windows whenever you use IE.

Why isn’t any of this interface configurable? The March 2001 issue of Business 2.0 Magazine reported:

Gator says it is aware that it has to keep users happy in order to retain advertisers. So the company is working on “preference engines,” to be rolled out this year, that will allow users to choose how aggressive Gator is, which categories they like and don’t like, and where pop-ups should appear on screen. “You ought to have that ability [to customize],” says [Gator’s Chief Marketing Officer Scott] Eagle, especially since the program is “two clicks away from being removed from the desktop permanently.”

So, nearly three years after those comments were made, I could find no configurability in Search Scout’s behavior and only one well-hidden setting for GAIN.

Overture: All or Nothing

In our discussion with some Overture customers, we found that several of them were not aware that their keyword search ads were being displayed by Gator. One of them told us they decided to pull their Overture ads after finding that their company was being associated with Gator in this way. Since Gator has garnered quite a bit of negative publicity in recent years, other Overture advertisers might be hesitant to be associated with Gator’s Search Scout–if they only knew about it. Here’s part of a forum thread named Overture, Greedy 2 Ways:

“I got an email from a woman yesterday who had one of our ads pop up on her desktop. … There is so much bad “karma” associated with Gator and similar sneaky software that she not only didn’t believe me, but went on to say that she would NEVER purchase anything from us and was going to tell everyone she knew do do the same.”

Overture customers tell us that Overture’s system does not allow them to control where ads are shown. Advertisers can only determine which keywords will show their ads, and cannot select whether the ad is shown on Gator’s Search Scout. Given Overture’s dominance in the keyword advertising market they do not yet seem to have felt enough pressure to provide the flexibility that is being requested by their customers.

Deja Vu: Yahoo Search users get two sets of identical Overture results, one from Yahoo and one from Search Scout.

Yahoo versus Yahoo

In October 2003, Yahoo acquired Overture Services in a stock-and-cash deal. Yahoo is now running Overture as a separate business unit. Even before the buyout, Yahoo had been an Overture partner with Yahoo Search keyword-targeted listings.

The Gator-Overture deal creates some very strange situations inside Yahoo’s own site. For example, GAIN users that do a Yahoo Search for “antivirus” get the same set of Overture listings twice! One set of Overture listings comes from Yahoo’s site. The other set comes from Search Scout when it detects the search terms on its own. (If you don’t have GAIN installed–we hope you don’t–click on the screen shot at right to see an example of what we mean.)

Since Overture advertisers only pay when users click on a link, the advertiser generally won’t pay extra for this type of duplication. The link the user chooses to click makes a big difference to Yahoo and Gator, though, since that choice affects their cut of the advertiser’s money. Now that Yahoo owns Overture outright, it seems especially strange for Gator to interrupt Yahoo Search and essentially add a middleman’s cost to the process. Perhaps Yahoo will make changes to eliminate this oddity in the near future.

Scout’s Honor?

In recent years there has been some controversy over the legitimacy of pop-up advertising that is unrelated to the site the user is visiting. With the recent legal victory of Gator’s soulmate, WhenU, the courts are ruling that users (not web site operators) control their own PCs. This is entirely reasonable, but have users really agreed to run GAIN’s Search Scout, or has this software slipped in without their knowledge and actually taken some control away from them? Our survey of users with GAIN installed shows that the phrase most apt for Gator users is not “I Agree” but “I Didn’t Know”.

Gator Advertisers Say: Enter “adware” into Gator’s Search Scout and you will get a dozen paid listings for products that help you remove Gator software.

For Gator, Overture seems to be willing to bend its rules on how advertising is delivered. Overture’s advertiser guidelines say “We discourage the use of pop-ups” yet Search Scout doesn’t even have a way to start without pop-ups. Also, some of the Overture advertisers we have contacted were not even aware that their ads were being shown through GAIN.

It’s ironic that when GAIN is installed, a Google search for “remove Gator” will pop up a Search Scout window where their own Scout’s Pick makes extremely unflattering remarks about Gator. If you enter “remove adware” into Search Scout you will receive a dozen paid listings for products that are designed to remove products like Gator. Overture and Gator seem to accept these ads despite Gator’s assertion that users consent to install the software and can easily remove it.

There’s nothing wrong with Overture’s basic business plan of delivering targeted advertising based on keywords that users enter at a web site such as Yahoo Search. PC Pitstop even advertises its own site using Google AdWords, a similar service, and these services can be an effective way for businesses to find customers. The problems come when you combine Overture’s listings with Gator’s intrusive and annoying Search Scout. Neither users nor advertisers seem to be helped by this combination.

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