Are Vertical Search Engines the Answer to Relevance?

While much of the search world keeps its eyes focused on every move made by Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, hundreds of small vertical search engines have sprung up, along with several technology providers that enable them.

The world of search is such a dynamic place that you can find major developments taking place right under your nose that just aren’t getting that much attention. Vertical search is one area where this is happening.

Outsell reports that the vertical search market will reach $1 billion in revenue by 2009. And enterprise search technology provider Convera’s recent survey of more than 1,000 professionals found that only 43 percent of business professionals always find what they want from a horizontal search engine after several attempts, and half of those who don’t find what they want will then turn to a vertical search engine to improve their results.

The major search providers have long recognized the importance and benefit of verticalization, with each offering some level of vertical options in its general search. In addition, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have each developed a vertical search platform to allow developers to build a custom vertical search engine using their technology. Microsoft launched Live Search Macros in March, Yahoo’s Yahoo Search Builder debuted in August, and Google unveiled its Custom Search Engines in October.

There are also two significant startups offering vertical search platforms: Eurekster and Rollyo. In fact, it’s quite likely that the success these two companies have seen encouraged the vertical moves by the big 3 search engines.

Recently, a colleague of mine, John Biundo, had a chance to interview Grant Ryan, Eurekster’s co-founder and chief scientist. He told us that Eurekster’s platform is doing more than 500,000 searches per day. This is serious volume for a small start up.

There are hundreds of other vertical search engines that are not based on one of these vertical search platforms. You can find a list of some of these here on Search Engine Watch. These search engines steadily are building up their market share in terms of search volume.

So what’s the Problem with Horizontal Search?

We see from the Convera study above that horizontal search can’t always do the job. Clearly this is what is driving the quietly exploding vertical search revolution. But what really is the limitation? I have recently had the chance to talk to Tim Mayer about Yahoo Search Builder and to Shashi Seth at Google about their Custom Search Engine product, and a consistent theme emerged.

Tim refers to it as “disambiguation”, and Shashi refers to it as “not knowing the context”. They are both referring to the same thing. The problem is that search engines often do not know what you want based on your search query. For example if your query is “surf” and you live in Santa Cruz, what is it that you really want? Or if you type in “diabetes”, the search engine does not know if you are a doctor looking for research data, or a patient looking for treatment information or tips on managing the disease.

Search engines are trying a number of initiatives to address this problem, such as search query refinements that allow users to focus their searches more quickly, such as Yahoo Shortcuts or the Google Onebox. However, these refinements are not entirely scalable, as it requires human editorial input for each query to make them accurate.

Vertical search engines address this problem by allowing the custom design of search engines for a specific purpose. The human input is built in from the beginning, and is provided by motivated people who are not on the payroll of the vertical search engine platform provider. If you decide to use a search engine which says it’s a “health information search engine for doctors”, instead of one that is labeled a “health information search engine for patients”, you have already helped to reduce the ambiguity of your search queries even before you type in your query.

In addition, traditional horizontal search engines cannot always determine the target audience of a page or site. Vertical search engines naturally address this issue, because the sites included in the results have been selected according to more specific criteria, and perhaps even by human input.

So what does this mean for the world of search engine marketing?

From a marketing perspective, there is really no feasible way to approach every person or business designing a vertical search engine. It’s simply not a scalable activity. There may be individual vertical search engines that grow to be large to make it worth approaching them directly, but the majority will have to be found in other ways.

Traditional SEO link building will get you nowhere for any custom search engine built on the vertical search platforms, because they rely on humans to decide which sites to include. Among the many vertical search engine start-ups that do not use one of these vertical search platforms, there are some that do their own crawls of the Web. Traditional SEO should help here, although the nature of the algorithms they use will vary from engine to engine, and may not be at all link-based.

Vertical search engines that match up with your business will most likely offer you a higher conversion rate than a horizontal search engine, since users will have implicitly self-selected themselves as interested in your vertical. PPC campaigns with these search engines should fare better as well. It should prove worth the effort to seek these vertical engines out, and develop a relationship with each one individually.

Eric Enge is the president of Stone Temple Consulting, an SEO consultancy outside of Boston. Eric is also co-founder of Moving Traffic Inc., the publisher of City Town Info and Custom Search Guide.

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