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By Leslie Walker

Marketing via search engines, once thought to be the province of hucksters and tricksters, showed signs of becoming a major force on the Internet this year as more and more companies turned to consultants to place ads in search results and help them gain greater prominence in the actual result listings.

The growing interest in such marketing comes as Internet users become increasingly reliant on search engines to navigate the Web. Search engines these days are practically public utilities, influencing such life decisions as what we buy, who we hang out with, even what we believe.

Given their importance, many companies have sought out online marketing gurus for help deciphering the intricacies of how the search engines work. They also have sought advice on how to capitalize on a move by several major search services to sell new kinds of ads that run with the results.

"My business almost tripled this year," said Jill Whalen, who runs a Boston-based Internet consultancy called HighRankings.com.

MoreVisibility.com, another consultancy, said it added 150 clients to its roster of 350 companies (including Toyota, Unisys Corp. and Sears Hardware) that pay the firm to improve their positions in Internet search results.

"Most companies need help figuring out how to run a successful search campaign because search engines are constantly rearranging the chairs on their decks," said Dennis Pushkin, chief executive of MoreVisibility.com.

This year ushered in big changes in Web searching. First was the explosive growth in paid listings, which are text ads that appear directly in or alongside regular search results. Type in "computer" on Google, for example, and you will see a paid ad from Gateway at the top of the page and another paid ad from Dell Computer Corp. on the right. Below the paid ads, Apple Computer Inc.'s Web site appears first in the free listing of matching Web sites deemed most relevant by Google's special mathematical formula that analyzes the 3 billion Web pages in its index. Paid listings have become big business, claming nearly $1 billion of the Internet's $6 billion to $8 billion in advertising this year.

An equally big change this year was Google's move into first place in the search-technology race. Roughly 41 million of the 113 million people conducting Web searches in November did so using Google, according to ComScore Media Metrix. Moreover, tens of millions more saw Google results elsewhere because the company's technology now powers all Web searching at Yahoo and America Online, giving Google the biggest share of the market.

Yahoo was the search leader in its heyday, but it overhauled its site in October and demoted its own Web directory so that it no longer even appears in the initial search results. To see Yahoo's own results -- the ones that made it famous -- you'd have to click on a tab labeled "directory" and go to another page. What's shown by default on Yahoo now are Web sites that pay to be in an ad network called Overture, followed by matching free results from Google. Something similar happens when you search on AOL, which displays both paid listings and free listings provided by Google.

Confused yet? It gets gnarlier. Microsoft Corp.'s MSN.com is technically the search leader, drawing 49 million visitors to its search page in November. But that counts the millions of people who visit MSN search accidentally because they typed an inactive Web address into the Internet Explorer browser. Moreover, MSN doesn't have its own search technology. Like AOL and Yahoo, it displays results from other search companies.

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