Vertical Search: B2B Survey Says … Blazing Hot

A survey gives us a viewpoint into how audiences are thinking. As a result, we can learn their collective mindset.

Convera recently released its Vertical Search Report 2008. Convera surveyed more than 500 media and Internet professionals in the U.S. and U.K. in November. Publishers and advertisers, not potential end users of vertical search engines, responded to the questions.

While considering the following data points from the report, it’s important to keep the audience in mind.

Vertical Search Key Findings

Sometimes the term “vertical search” is used to refer to image search and video search. This is, of course, a type of vertical search, where the vertical dimension is the format of the content being searched.

For the purposes of this column, vertical search is more broadly defined by a wide range of search categories. Examples include travel search (e.g. Expedia), book search (e.g. Amazon), and legal search.

Ninety-three percent of respondents indicated that they would be likely, or very likely, to use a vertical search engine focused on their business and work needs.

Fifty-three percent of respondents indicated one of the major benefits of vertical search engines is faster access to the information being searched for. I interpret this to mean “more relevant, higher quality search results.”

Advertisers viewed the biggest advantage of vertical search as “more contextual, relevant, and targeted advertising.”

Publishers cited three advantages:

  • Improve brand by becoming an authoritative Web site.
  • Keep users on site.
  • Potential to monetize through advertising.

Open Questions

After reviewing the survey, I’m left with a few questions:

First, how will end users of a search engine on a particular Web site recognize they’re using a vertical search engine? Even if the user uses a vertical search engine, and it actually provides them with a better answer, they may not realize they’re using a vertical search engine.

One way to address this issue is to develop a highly distinct UI, with distinct branding, and highly differentiated search results. However, this makes the development of a vertical search engine more costly.

Second, if users recognize it as a vertical search engine, will they recognize enough added value to see it as being superior to horizontal, or general, search engines (such as Google, Yahoo, Live Search, etc.)? In other words, will it be worth going out of their way to use it?

My sense is that 20 percent better is not enough — users will only specifically seek out a vertical search engine if it’s far superior to their favorite horizontal one. People simply are in the habit of going to the horizontal search engine of their choice.

Even when a user tries out the search they find on a publisher’s site, they’re usually focused on some sort of task. They’re not going to take the time to compare the search results they just got from the vertical search tool to the results they would get for the same search on their favorite horizontal search engine.

This puts a burden on the publisher of a vertical search engine to build enough additional value into their search property to make it obvious and easily recognizable.

Third, will the publishers themselves understand the type of investment is required to make a vertical search engine good enough to derive the benefits the survey indicates they think they will get?

In the survey, one of the biggest disadvantages of vertical search engines cited was the “hassle of support and maintenance.” As noted before, it’s critical to the ROI (define) of vertical search to create that distinctly superior experience, and that is a subtlety a lot of publishers miss.

Lastly, I’d like to get a better understanding of the makeup of the respondents, such as more about what industries were represented. This might allow us to judge the survey’s significance.

Vertical Search Survey Summary

The vertical search market will continue to grow and prosper. However, there are clearly areas where it makes more sense than others. If the value being sought is generating repeat visitors to your site, or keeping visitors on the site longer, then you must provide enough value so the user recognizes they just had a better experience.

This takes careful planning and thought. However, for the right Web sites, it can help create a more authoritative site experience.

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