Halifax-based search engine GenieKnows.com has slugged it out in the second tiers of the search engine universe since its founding in 1999. One of the few remaining independent engines of note, GenieKnows adopted what was considered a radical and rather dangerous plan about eighteen months ago.
In a bid to differentiate itself from other search engines and to appeal to its strongest search-user markets, GenieKnows went vertical. For the past eighteen months, GenieKnows has separated its listings into three overarching categories covering the most popular verticals: gaming, health and local.
In effect, the family-run Canadian search firm has created three unique search engines, each of which has unique characteristics, properties and functionality. According to Mark Harper, VP of strategic relations at GenieKnows, they intend to introduce others in the coming year.
I recently spoke with Harper in a wide-ranging telephone interview that touched on the many challenges of being a smaller player in a search environment so heavily dominated by a few extremely big players. We started with the choices surrounding going vertical.
He credits GenieKnows founder and CEO Barbara Manning with the decision about two years ago to serve specific verticals instead of general search results. It turned out to be a smart and timely move. Those were difficult times for many of the smaller search engines, several of which have since closed shop without much fanfare or notice. The crux of the problem faced by all tiers in search can be summed up in six giggly and colourful letters: G-o-o-g-l-e.
GenieKnows had already amassed a significantly large index of web documents. They had built their own algorithmic search engine, complete with a never-sleeping crawler named GenieBot. Having proven they could create their own algorithmic crawler and build their own search index, the company was faced with the absurd challenge of competing with Google as a general search engine.
The choices to serve the gaming community, health information and local search results ended up being smart and timely decisions. GenieKnows appears healthier and more robust today than it did a few years ago. Each vertical is growing rapidly, and each presents distinct revenue and advertising opportunities to explore.
Local search is probably the most important vertical, both for GenieKnows and for search engine users. In a partnership with business content management firm Localeze, GenieKnows Local lists nearly 20 million businesses. Along with Google and MSN, GenieKnows is one of only three search engines with full coverage of the USA and Canada.
Combining search results with satellite or graphic maps, GenieKnows has a powerful and innovative local search engine designed to make finding the right street or address easier. The search interface uses a standard image or satellite map, but GenieKnows cleverly breaks the map into a grid system they call Zone Search. Each grid in the map shows the number of search results found in that part of the city.
Zone Search, which was developed in-house by GenieKnows' research and development department, was designed with travelers in mind, specifically business people who don't necessarily know their way around an area.
I tested the system with one of my personal favourite searches, "pizza Victoria" and quickly learned there were over 68 pizzerias serving the relatively small city in which I live. I was also able to immediately ascertain which parts of the city contained the highest concentration of pizza parlors, an important accomplishment for new arrivals on the first night of a business trip.
Unlike its largest local search competitor, GenieKnows didn't confuse where I lived with the dozen or so other North American locations named Victoria. Google needs to be told if I mean the Victoria in Texas, Virginia, Kansas, Minnesota, Illinois, Nova Scotia, West Virginia, or some other landlocked location, rather than the one here in British Columbia. "That's a bit of the rudimentary AI you're seeing," said Mark Harper, "we sniffed your IP and noted the search query came from western Canada."
GenieKnows also has easier to access results than its competitors do. Using Zone Search, GenieKnows is able to pack more results into each map by showing the aggregate number of results in each zone. When that zone is clicked by the searcher, a new map instantly opens showing the street locations of each listing. For many, if not most local searches, the physical location of the service or store in which a particular product can be purchased is often the most relevant factor for search engine users. By that measure the Zone Search function of GenieKnows Local does a better job helping searchers than either of its two larger competitors.
Over the past five years, the video gaming industry has grown larger than the Hollywood movie industry. With higher revenues and a larger employee base, the video games now make up the number one entertainment industry in the world. The growth of the gaming as entertainment sector was one of the factors that helped CEO Barbara Manning decide to dedicate a search engine towards it.
"Local seems to be very en-vogue right now but the games-specific search engines, I can't really think of another search engine that is games-specific," says Mark Harper as he and I troll Game Search listings. "The same crawler-agent we've always used, GenieBot, is used to spider gaming content for our search engine", he said.
Much of the content in the Game Search engine consists of reviews, cheat codes, maps, hardware and gaming tips. Anyone seeking pirated copies of games should look elsewhere. If, however, you are looking for information on the best joystick to use with that new Air Combat game you've purchased, GenieKnows probably has a forum discussion or product review to help you decide on the best purchase.
The third vertical GenieKnows covers provides health and wellness information. Health and wellness is one of the most active vertical sectors in marketing with an aging population growing more concerned year after year. While GenieKnows does not know specifics on your health records, it does know where to find information you might be seeking about your health. Spidering most major media sites as well as medical focused discussion groups, forums and publications, GenieKnows returns a thorough set of results.
On the left hand side of the screen, a "Results by Category" box gives easier access to different segments or sources such as children, seniors, conditions and disease, and blogs & news. Offering faster options for finding information is the goal, though I was able to find accurate information on the first page of general results for the dozen or so test-searches I conducted.
GenieKnows Its Revenue Lines
Every search engine needs a working revenue model. As with its competitors, the biggest part of the business of GenieKnows is found in the paid search advertising running down the right-hand side of search results.
GenieKnows Advertising (GKA) is similar in structure and product to other pay-per-click advertising programs. Text-based ads are purchased using an auction system, and are targeted to search results in the GenieKnows network.
Another revenue line is found in local advertising. While GenieKnows offers local businesses free entrance into its database of local sites, it gives premium placement to paying customers. A GenieKnows premium ad will get placed above ads for similar businesses in the same local grid as well as showing up on a map when search users are looking for other types of businesses, when relevant. (Perhaps a bookstore customer would like a slice of pizza while shopping?)
Advertising across GenieKnows costs a fraction of the fees racked up on its larger competitors. Having survived nearly ten years in one of the most competitive online industries, GenieKnows has attracted a loyal audience that continues to grow.
By far, GenieKnows' strongest stand-out product is its local search engine. However the other two verticals served by GenieKnows are rapidly expanding sectors sporting extremely interested searchers. Having survived what was likely the harshest period for alternatives in the short history of search engines; GenieKnows is well positioned to take advantage of what could well be a far brighter era.
Jim Hedger is a writer and broadcaster specializing in organic SEO and search marketing. Jim works with Metamend Search Engine Marketing as an SEO consultant, lead copywriter and head blog writer. He also works as a consultant to Enquisite Search Metrics. Jim has been involved in the SEO field since the days of the dinosaurs. He felt like he lost a personal friend the day Disney went "ol' Yeller" on Infoseek. When not traveling between conferences, Jim lives with a perpetually annoyed cat named Hypertext in the northwest techno-outport of Victoria, British Columbia.