The 1,000 Points of the Vertical Search Light

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the notion of vertical search. The idea is there are so many search engines, people will ultimately be able to stack them, one on top of another. When this (vertical) stack tips over, consumers can pick the one they like best from the pile.

No, wait. That’s the dream I had recently, right after enchilada night at casa Stein.

Vertical search is the idea the big search destinations are good at general search but tend to falter for specific topics. This creates a needs gap: a search engine specifically focused on one topic, industry, or activity. If there were a fish search engine, you’d never get pictures of guitars when you search “bass.”

My colleague Niki Scevak foresaw the vertical revolution, comparing search to television. In the beginning, there were the three big networks. They catered to a mass audience. Johnny Carson became famous under this system. As technology improved, channels multiplied. New, niche-focused networks and shows were able to find an audience. Rather than just Johnny, we’ve got Dave, Jay, Dennis, and whoever else is on TV after I go to bed at nine.

It’s the same with search. As searching becomes a core Web activity, there’s an opportunity to better cater to particular needs. But if you’re thinking about getting into the vertical opportunity, there are two things you need to know. First, it’s easier to launch a vertical search engine than it is to launch a general search engine. Second, the economics of it are tight, and you’ll need to be creative.

Using the APIs

Cable exploded because of an increase in technology. Same with vertical search, but the technology is different: APIs. Google and Yahoo publish APIs that allow developers to use their index with your interface. I blogged a little while back about a site called Irantracker.com. This project allows you to track press mentions concerning Iran using Google’s index. The interface uses pull-down menus, but it would work the same if it used a search box. You’d type in “politicians” and get results for Mohammad Khatami, Ali Khamenei, and Saeed Mortazavi.

This site’s publishers have some PERL scripts that conduct search and sort functions. What they’ve identified is the gap between general and vertical search doesn’t really reside in the index but rather in the interface. Assumedly, these scripts (or ones like them) could be applied to any other topic. The big engines will generally admit to this gap. Part of the API’s purpose is to make this sort of expert development easy and accessible.

Getting It to Pay

IranTracker is free, but clearly there are business opportunities here. Those looking to develop these vertical search engines will realize very quickly they must not only find ways to generate money on the site but also figure out a way to stay ahead of traffic cost.

This is important because vertical search is innately tied to general search. Consumers typically find a vertical search engine as the result of a general search. Shopping search engines (the granddaddies of vertical search) are tremendous for pay-per-click (PPC) search ad buyers. Other niche search engines will be in the same boat, buying fishing keywords, for example, to attract fishers to the fish search engine.

That’s fine, provided you’re not also relying on a contextual network. Imagine that fishing site buying AdWords and using AdSense. Assumedly, the site owner would serve ads from the same pool he buys from. Suddenly, you have a closed-loop economy. Even if the site owner negotiated a 99 percent revenue share with Google, it would mean he’d lose a penny on every transaction (at best — remember, not everyone’s going to click). Best-case scenario, of course, is you get visitors to bookmark your site after that first visit and return directly to your URL. But that’s really the branding process, and the topic of an upcoming column.

So there must be another revenue stream. This ultimately is why I think we’ll see the flowering of many, many vertical search engines, run by master affiliates. These are people and companies comfortable with bidding on keywords, developing applications using APIs, creating niche content, and converting traffic. They’re in a prime position to seize this opportunity. I imagine we’ll see a ton of movement on this over the coming months.

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