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Thursday 15 March 2007

Vertical Search on the Rise

Search Engine Guide
Vertical Search on the Rise
By Jason Prescott - February 27, 2007

Internet search is changing in many different ways. Audience fragmentation is rampant on the web because Internet users have specific interests and diverse needs. Consumers demand more choices and are responding to personalization like never before.

A recent personalization survey conducted by Choice Stream [pdf] in 2006 shows that consumers are willing to sacrifice privacy for personalized content.

This annual survey provides insight into current consumer preferences, showing an increasingly favorable trend toward personalization since 2005. Key findings in 2006 indicate that interest in personalization is strong, with as many as 79 percent of those surveyed showing a preference for receiving personalized content.

The number of consumers willing to trade privacy for personalization also increased in 2006, with 57 percent of consumers willing to provide personal demographic information in exchange for personalized content, whereas in 2005, only 46 percent were willing to make the trade.

Search Needs Differ

People have diverse search needs that can range from very specific purchase behavior to informational searching on topics such as health or leisure. The Internet audience is varied, ranging from GenYers flocking to MySpace to baby boomers seeking simple pleasures and the fountain of youth.

Stratified web audiences result in many different ways of searching, spawning a new generation of search engines. This has implications for marketers as targeting becomes the latest buzz word in search and every other online marketing channel.

General Search Losing Favor

Many people find that general search engines like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft Live are not the be-all and end-all for their web searches. That's because general search engines are cluttered with all the information that's fit to index, so many queries bring irrelevant results.

Research has revealed a search failure rate of 31.9 percent on general search engines among business users (Outsell 2006). Another study by Convera (2006) reveals that professionals in every industry can't find vital, work-related information on major search engines.

Part of the problem is that general search engines were not designed as business tools. Beyond that, most business executives are not trained to search the web. As a result, only four out of 10 professionals are satisfied with general search engines.

Convera's survey of business executives reports the following -- and it's not very good news for Google or Yahoo:

  • 11 percent always found what they were looking for on the first attempt.
  • 43 percent always found what they were looking for after several attempts.
  • 21 percent felt their queries were always understood.

Results like those of Outsell and Convera encourage the continued localization and verticalization of search. In fact, we are seeing a whole new generation of search engines, each with a mission to personalize search based on idiosyncratic user needs.

Second-Generation Search

While general search engines basically rank by the largest number of inbound links from other highly ranked pages within their index, a second generation of search engines has started to rank by various other factors, including the human element.

Perhaps Yahoo was among the first innovators with Yahoo Mindset, where you can choose commercial vs. noncommercial results. Yahoo describes this as intent-driven search where users specify their intent, selecting the most relevant results.

Clusty also came out with something new by grouping similar items together and organizing search results in folders. Since then, there have been many different types of search engines launched to better meet user needs. Perhaps the latest entries are Eons and Cranky for boomers and seniors. Here you can find fun and games for the over-50 crowd in addition to health, travel and obits.

Some of the most interesting newbies include Rollyo and Collarity. Rollyo is a social search engine that allows users to create and publish their own search engine rolls by selecting websites for inclusion. Collarity is a community search engine that personalizes search through human input and automatically serves results specific to user interests by tapping into information gained from previous queries.

The search world as we know it is changing rapidly. While local search and vertical search have been around a long time, they are about to blossom and get a larger share of the market.

Local Search Rising

Local search could represent one of the last big digital land grabs. There is a huge opportunity to dominate local search that is currently not claimed by any one sector. Local newspapers or the Yellow Pages could go for it, and the general search engines could own it as well.

Offline newspapers get 18 percent of local ad dollars ($90 billion per year). However, online newspapers only get 4 percent, leaving an opportunity for growth. While local advertising used to be a cash cow for newspapers, they are being preempted by the web, where sellers can get free classifieds and buyers have multiple choices at their fingertips.

The Yellow Pages is a different story. While offline Yellow Pages get 10 percent of local ad dollars, online Yellow Pages get 42 percent of the pie. It looks like online Yellow Pages are ahead, but no one owns the space yet.

Local Advertising

Local online advertising is also on the upswing. EMarketer's current estimate shows the U.S. local online ad spend at $1.3 billion in 2006, representing 7.9 percent of a total U.S. online ad spend of $16.7 billion.

If the local online ad spend were to double this year to $2.6 billion, it would still represent roughly 10 percent of the estimated $20.3 billion total ad spend for 2007. Local online advertising growth is there for the asking, but it remains to be seen who will grab the ring.

Vertical Search Relevance

Addressing the difficulty of finding work-related information through general search engines, the Convera study identified a trend showing that trade publications are developing niche search engines to serve their professional communities. These verticals will likely provide more relevant search opportunities for B2B users. When Convera asked respondents about expectations for these new vertical search engines (VSEs), almost 90 percent of the executives said they thought vertical search tools would offer more relevant content.

  • 86 percent thought VSEs would locate content more quickly.
  • 85 percent thought VSEs would offer access to content not indexed by general search engines.

While the rationale for indexing and including the world's entire content is based on a search engine's need to provide unbiased, unfiltered information, there are certainly advantages to filtering and limiting content based on user needs. That is why most major search engines segment their databases into various content areas such as image, video, news, local and blog search, et cetera. However, the verticals seem to do a better job of providing relevant results, and that is the reason for their increasing popularity.

It may take some time before local and vertical search dominate in cyberspace, but these specialty search engines could one day become more important than Google.

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