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updated 9/23/2009 7:33:06 PM ET 2009-09-23T23:33:06

Ostensibly, this is the story of dictionary Web sites and their impending demise. But really, this is the story of the oxpecker. I ask your patience while I get ornithological; we’ve got a metaphor to spin.

Meet the oxpecker bird, a plucky, selfless little thing. Its life amounts—as for so many of us—to nothing but consumption for the sake of others. The oxpecker is a helpful friend to the bigger game of the sub-Saharan grasslands. Giraffes, wildebeests, and cattle all welcome oxpeckers onto their hides in exchange for a master cleanse. The oxpeckers, meanwhile, feed off of the parasites, insects, and ticks that they’re picking off their gracious hosts. It’s a symbiotic relationship, one of those quirks of nature that keeps an ecosystem churning. You scratch my back, I’ll fatten yours.

Most interesting for our purposes is the dynamic between the two animals. It’s a mutually beneficial partnership: The oxpecker provides a service the animal can’t manage in-house, and the animal offers the oxpecker a parasitic cornucopia. A beautiful consequence of evolution, nature organically assigning roles to different animals.

Dictionary Web sites, as you may have surmised, are akin to the oxpeckers. The only way they can sustain themselves is by borrowing resources from far larger game—search engines, in this case. All sorts of traffic finds its way to an online dictionary through a search engine, which means that all sorts of advertising revenue depends on those clicks coming through. On the Internet, pageviews equal revenue, especially when you pack dozens of ads on a page, as the dictionary sites do. Without search engines feeding the dictionaries traffic, the reference sites probably couldn’t survive.

But search engines are smarter than giraffes. They’ve always had the ability to evolve and start providing definitions on their own. Thus, the dictionary sites have always been in a precarious spot; their hosts could grow the equivalent of a backscratcher at any moment and put the oxpecker out of a job. And now it finally appears that search engines have had enough. Without warning, the evolution has already begun; dictionary sites are more endangered than ever.

To understand the way things once were, let’s look at Google. The market leader in search hasn’t significantly changed the way it deals with definitions in years, and its presentation is a useful time capsule. Open up Google in a new tab and run a search for a single, SAT-caliber word. Let’s use loquacious as our example. Don’t know what it means? Perfect; that makes it the kind of thing you would Google. Google, you’ll notice, doesn’t give you a definition itself—it just links off to a bunch of other dictionary sites.

10 tech company Photoshop disastersAnd here’s where things get interesting. The definition isn’t in any of the search returns’ little two-line descriptions, either. That’s because they’re purposefully trying to obscure the results. Every site on the Internet can suggest to Google what to pull as those two-line descriptions. Google doesn’t have to listen—as we’ll see later—but more often than not its algorithms don’t bother bypassing the hand-fed description. Dictionary sites know this and purposefully keep their definitions out of the suggested description. Instead they insert the requested word into a generic few sentences. Take a look at Dictionary.com’s description:

Loquacious—Definition of Loquacious at Dictionary.com a free online dictionary with pronunciation, synonyms, and translation of Loquacious. Word of the Day and Crossword Puzzles.

Keeping definitions out of search engine returns is a major business initiative. Web sites are always hesitant to release traffic figures, but Merriam-Webster’s electronic product director told me that a “majority” of their traffic comes from search engines.* Whatever the exact percentage is, it would surely drop if definitions were displayed in the search returns. Why click through to the actual site if you already have your answer before you get there? (*Correction: This story originally misspelled Merriam-Webster. It has been corrected throughout.)

This is the way that things were (and for Google, still are). But it’s not the way that things will be. Search engines are increasingly expected to be more than just a portal to what we need online, but they also provide us shortcuts to the answers that we seek, minimizing the number of clicks that it takes to find them. I want to go to the search engine that gets me to my information the fastest—and that means I shouldn’t have to click through to get a definition. Google’s chief competitor has already bought into this philosophy. Microsoft treats definitions in a wholly different, more selfish way than Google does.

Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, shamelessly borrows the dictionary content without any of the typical kickbacks. Bing has figured out a cheap and effective way to harness dictionary sites’ information that heightens the user experience. Go ahead and plug loquacious into Bing. You’ll see an in-line definition, this time pulled from Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia. (The same one that they’re discontinuing at the end of the year.)

But then scroll down to the next return, from dictionary.com. You’ll see something different from Google’s results; the definition is right there in the search return. Bing has ignored dictionary.com’s recommended description and apparently cut straight through to the good stuff. This shifts the power dynamic of the search-engine-dictionary-site relationship. By reaping all the benefits, Bing’s ability to repay the favor is limited. Remember, people don’t need to click on a link if they already know what awaits on the other side.

And there’s even more dictionary.com data in the Bing framework. Hover your mouse over that dictionary.com search link and you’ll see a vertical bar pop up on the right side of the return. Move your mouse over that and you’ll get even more information imported from the site—pronunciation, etymology, derivatives of the word.

Where does Bing get off using others’ content in their own skin? Microsoft did not make someone available for an interview, but instead offered a boilerplate statement on some, but not all, questions asked by The Big Money. On why they include this information from third-party sites—“Instant Answers” in Bing-speak—they offered this bland statement:

We designed Bing as a decision engine; a search experience aimed at delivering results in a more organized way so you can find the information you are looking for more quickly and ultimately make better decisions. Rather than bringing back a sea of blue links to sift through, Instant Answers provide relevant direct answers to many topics.

Reading between the lines: We’re here to make the users happy. If that means depriving content sites of pageviews, so be it. Let them adjust.

The dictionary sites know that a new day is coming. Traffic is still on the rise—according to ComScore, all the dictionary sites had more traffic in July 2009 than July 2008—but that doesn’t make the business models any less precarious. Michael Guzzi, the digital products manager I spoke with at Merriam-Webster, said they haven’t seen traffic dip at all (ComScore has them up 29 percent with 6.2 million unique visitors in July 2009), but that they are aware of a change in the way the search engines are interacting with their content. “Fighting it doesn’t make sense,” he told me, “even if there were some way to block Google from grabbing info. Do we really want to be the only dictionary that shows up without the definitions?” That doesn’t make sense for their business model, either. Then the clicks definitely won’t come in.

So what to do? One hope is to work with the enemy. Along with direct access to the definitions, Bing also offers extra links back to the dictionary sites. In those boxes on the right side of the search return are a set of “popular links,” which are links to synonyms and related terms of use on the dictionary site. For reasons Merriam-Webster doesn’t yet understand, Bing isn’t playing nice with the M-W site architecture, so it’s not offering those related links. That’s a wasted opportunity for more traffic. Fine-tuning these kinds of processes will be important as the dictionary fights adjust their business models.

Even more pressing than the current threats, though, are the unknown ones that lie in the future. Bing, remember, is small bore. It routes only 10.7 percent of the country’s searches, compared with Google’s 64.6 percent. (Though it is gaining market share quickly.) The thing that would really upset the dictionary sites’ business would be a change in the way Google handles their content. What happens if Google starts acting like Bing?

10 ways to waste time onlineWhat would a Google adaptation of Bing’s style look like? We already know. For years, Google has already had a template in place that offers dictionaries in search returns. If you type in “define loquacious” or “loquacious definition” to Google you’ll get a different result than when just typing in “loquacious.” There, at the top of the page, is the definition pulled from a Princeton dictionary—no need to click through. But it’s up to the user to type in “define” or “definition.” These are what Google calls operators; they tell the search-engine that you want a definition straight-away.

So why not have this happen automatically? I asked a Google spokesman why Google doesn’t automatically put definitions in single-word search queries, even without the “define” operators. It’s partly because Google doesn’t want words like “cat” coming back with definitions. Of course, but Bing doesn’t offer a definition when you just search for “cat.” Couldn’t Google know which words people want definitions for and which ones they don’t, based on where they usually go after the search page? Yes, I was assured. Those data are tracked.

The Google spokesman told me that “at this point, nothing to announce regarding future product plans in this area.” Fine. But the thing is: Bing’s way really works. As a user, I am happier to not have to click so many times, especially when the search engine obviously knows what information I’m looking for. If it’s giving me a full page of links to dictionary sites, then it seems silly for it not to give me the definition. Given the choice of Bing vs. Google, Bing has the better definition interface. It may be worse for the online dictionary business, but it’s better for the consumer.

Google is going to be forced to catch up for business reasons. Bing’s rapid growth—22.1 percent in August—has proven that there’s a market for Bing’s “decision engine” approach. (The dictionary technique is only one element of that, of course.)

And this type of change wouldn’t violate Google’s search ethos. Search for three numbers and the return already brings up an area code location automatically. A FedEx number? Automatic tracking inside the search results. Unit conversion? Yep. Math equations? Let Google be your calculator. Definition requests are the last major wall yet to fall. Tear it down.

But then what of the dictionaries? If Google goes Bing then dictionaries’ traffic will go poof. And thus we confront the real risk in this scenario. If the search engines borrow too much content and leech too many page views they’ll send the dictionary sites out of business. And then where will they get their definitions? Plus, there are ad revenue concerns at play. The dictionaries are huge platforms for text and banner ads, especially those running through Google networks . The beasts will have killed off the oxpeckers at their own expense. The ecosystem will have been destroyed. Any survivors left behind will have blood on their hands and nobody to help clean it off.

Copyright Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive

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