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E-Commerce Doubles Down on Pay Per Call

And while Google and Yahoo! dominate the pay-per-click market, this new market for online advertising is wide open. No one controls it yet, but everyone's lining up for a piece of this potentially meaty pie. In the past six months, Google launched Google Talk, Yahoo! bought VoIP provider Dialpad, Microsoft (MSFT - Get Report) bought Teleo, AOL launched TotalTalk and eBay bought Skype. InterActiveCorp (IACI - Get Report) and Verizon (VZ - Get Report) are also said to be staking a claim in the nascent market.

Of course, most of these companies have VoIP ambitions beyond pay-per-call advertising. But in the past few weeks, Yahoo! and Google have gone further, revealing trial programs for pay-per-call advertising. First, reports emerged that Yahoo! is working with pay-per-call pioneer Ingenio. Then Google, through its increasingly common tactic for unofficial announcements, posted a "click-to-call" FAQ on its Web site.

The Google FAQ sketches out the clearest picture of how the technology will likely work: After entering a search for, say "mortgage broker" or "plumber," some of the sponsored links will include a phone icon. Clicking on it will allow the searcher to either "Connect for Free" via Google Talk or to enter a phone number that the advertiser will call back.

Google shields any entered numbers from the advertiser and vows to delete it from its own servers after a nonspecific period of time. The advertiser's phone number will reside on the caller's computer in an encrypted cookie. Google also says it will foot all phone charges, even for long-distance calls. Call backs to a mobile phone, though, will still be charged to the phone plan.

Hello ... Anybody in There?

The burgeoning pay-per-call trend in online advertising has the potential for a welcomed side effect for lonely online shoppers: the ability to inject an element of humanity into e-commerce.

For the past decade, competitive pricing pressures forced online retailers to pare back or automate customer service to the point where seeking out help was a lot like tossing the proverbial message in a bottle into the ocean. Things reached an absurd extreme when finding Amazon.com's toll-free customer service number demanded all the skill and persistence of a Princess Zelda rescue. (Hint: Try Googling for the number instead.)

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