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Besides Google and Bing, What's Next for Search?

  |  August 7, 2009   |  Comments

Scores of alternative and niche search engines are vying for a piece of the search engine market. A look at some innovators.

While attention is fixed on the rivalry between Google and Microsoft-Yahoo, entrepreneurs are not sitting idly by.

Sure, Google's the undisputed leader in the United States, accounting for 70.6 percent of query volume, according to Hitwise. And Yahoo's plan to use Microsoft Bing search technology has set the stage to help Microsoft become a stronger competitor.

What's more, vertical search engines have become an established part of the search landscape. Think Amazon.com for shopping, Ticketmaster for events, Kayak.com for travel, and Trulia.com for real estate.

Keep in mind, no one thinks Google will become the 21st century equivalent of the American Motors anytime soon. The recent shuttering of visual search engine SearchMe, which had $44 million in funding, reinforces the challenge of building a search engine and winning over a following. And who could forget the splash made by Cuil last year? It had only 112,900 unique visitors in June 2009 compared to 2 million in July 2008, according to Compete.com.

Still, a mind-boggling number of ventures are seeking to carve out a niche on other fronts to help people online get more relevant information faster. These entrepreneurs -- some digging into verticals such as travel, shopping, and jobs, and others investing in new approaches and formats -- are all hoping the dollars will follow.

So how are other search engines evolving and differentiating themselves from Google and Microsoft's Bing? And what do those developments mean for online advertisers and marketers?

I posed these and other questions to Charles Knight, an analyst and editor of AltSearchEngines. Knight's a font of information on alternate and niche search engines, passionately discussing the nuances of each.

He first referred me to a piece he prepared for BingTweets, a partnership between Federated Media and Microsoft Bing. Here, Knight lists the top 10 search categories including vertical search (e.g., Hotelicopter.com, TheFind), federated search that involves searching deep into Web sites to find select databases (e.g., Mednar.com, Biznar.com), and social search (e.g., OneRiot and iMedix).

Out of all those categories, which two or three hold the most potential for advertisers and marketers? Knight reached out to his network of search engine entrepreneurs to reply to that question. Here are excerpts from their responses, keeping in mind they reflect their preferences and biases:

    Cooliris Chief Revenue Officer Shashi Seth: "Each...offers something unique to advertisers and marketers. However, almost all of these areas will tend to target the direct response kind of advertising, and not so much brand advertising. Visual search engines can offer the 'brand advertisers' something of value."

    Surf Canyon CEO Mark Cramer: "Advertisers care about customers, so targeting and volume are important. Many search engines can provide the former, like vertical search for example, but the latter is very difficult. When it comes time to spend a budget, advertisers will naturally start with Google, Bing, and Yahoo before going anyplace else. To the extent other search engines can leverage the ad networks of the big guys, that can be a win for everyone -- smaller search engines can generate some revenue for sustaining their businesses and innovating, larger search engines can make some incremental revenue. Advertisers can get additional quality traffic and users can get a better search experience. However, advertisers are still going to invest with the volume."

    TheFind CEO Siva Kumar: "From the marketer's perspective, vertical search is much more targeted and therefore the dollars spent go much farther with better results than the spending on general purpose sites. In addition, vertical search engines can also grow to critical mass-sized volumes even while retaining the targeting necessary to keep marketers very happy."

    OneRiot General Manager Tobias Peggs: "Advertisers/marketers will benefit from a particular user behavior found on real-time search engines. That is, users tend to search many more times per day for the same query than they do on a traditional search engine. The reason is simple. On a real-time search engine, the results change in real time to keep up with the latest news and buzz."

But what about Twitter's search engine? Knight is not sold on it. "I don't get Twitter [search]. I'm in the camp with people who find it's [full of] meaningless banalities, worthless chitchat," he said.

And while vertical search engines have become entrenched players, the next generation are incorporating new interactive tools and other features. For instance, Savings.com, a coupon site, this month unveiled features designed to build an online community for deal hunters. Simply Hired, a site that aggregates job listings, has added tools to assist the job hunter, such as integrating LinkedIn into the career site's search results pages.

While Knight is intrigued by the innovations occurring in search, he cautions that some engines are so specialized they'll have a tough time getting discovered. "No one is going to use six different search engines for six different needs," Knight says. That is, unless, you are Charles Knight.

Meet Anna Maria at Search Engine Strategies San Jose, August 10-14, 2009, at the McEnery Convention Center.

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Anna Maria Virzi

Anna Maria Virzi, ClickZ's executive editor from 2007 until 2012, covered Internet business and technology since 1996. She was on the launch team for Ziff Davis Media's Baseline and also worked at Forbes.com, Web Week, Internet World, and the Connecticut Post.

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