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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) bought Teleo, AOL launched TotalTalk and eBay bought Skype. InterActiveCorp (IACI) and Verizon (VZ) 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'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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