Vertical search, seen by many analysts as the next massive market opportunity in the search space, is quickly becoming one of the most crowded, with a host of new launches in recent days.
In the past two weeks alone, LookSmart launched a group of five vertical search tools and promised more, Yahoo unveiled the first of what is hinted would be a family of vertical engines and at least two new specialized sites went live. Today, Yahoo said it was launching, in beta form, an expanded version of its travel platform to enable travel planners to search for hotel rooms as well as airfares.
Some analysts believe that highly specialized vertical search companies pose the most significant potential threat to the likes of Google and Yahoo, but there is still a range of predictions on exactly where the market is headed.
While they lack the brand awareness and name-recognition of the major sites and also don’t have the portal-style ability to drive and retain traffic, search engines such as Answers.com, which focuses on specialized research, job search site Indeed.com and newly launched shopping search site Become.com, are gaining traction with consumers.
Greg Sterling, managing editor of the Kelsey Group, said startups are aiming for vertical segments because it would be “naive” to attempt to go head-to-head with the massive search engines.
“There are a few verticals that matter,” he added, citing travel, shopping, local and classified-style categories such as jobs, cars and real estate. “But consumers want ease of use, simplicity and efficiency.”
While a proliferation of sites might provide better search specialists that can more effectively aggregate information, such as airline fares, from multiple Web sites, some analysts say consumers don’t necessary want to visit multiple sites, a fact that might give the large, established players an advantage in the long run.
LookSmart has decided to go hard after the vertical market by trying to leverage its portal-style wells of information.
“LookSmart believes that search on the Web will become increasingly vertical and personal,” Debby Richman, senior vice president of consumer products for LookSmart, said. “Consumers turn to the Web in search of essential content, be it related to a hobby, work or education.”
The LookSmart sites are heavily divided along demographic lines, with homework-research sites for teen users, one for younger “tweens,” another aimed at college students. Others target parents with news and information about child rearing. Users can store their search results in an online filing cabinet being called “furl,” which can also be shared online with other users with similar interests.
The company believes that Web users will increasingly use the Internet much as they do cable television, favoring specialized channels that speak directly to their concerns. Just as cable TV networks such as Lifetime and Nickelodeon have eaten into network audiences, LookSmart and others believe targeted sites can chip away at the Google and Yahoo audience bases.
Time Will Tell
Not that those firms are likely to take the attempted raid on their audiences lying down. Google has launched a local vertical as well as specialized sites for academic research and has launched a massive project to digitize university libraries, the type of massive data store that will set apart vertical leaders, analysts say. Yahoo recently launched a tool to help users search for creative works that can be reused and at the time promised more vertical efforts.
LookSmart and Yahoo launched their sites around the same time as two new search tools came online. Recently launched were CyberGolfSearch.com, a site that aggregates information from hundreds of local golf course sites, and Portals2theWorld, the latest in a growing legion of travel-focused search tools.
Other approaches are being tested as well, including one from Amazon’s A9.com that essentially enables search syndication, letting blogs or other content sites put their archives into play as search venues.
Despite all the activity surrounding vertical search, many analysts remain unsure about what impact the segment will have in the long run. Some analysts believe consumers want simplified search options they can access from a single, familiar and trusted place, while others say users will actively seek out the sites that offer the best access toinformation.
The vertical search value proposition for consumers is obvious, Jim Hedger, search engine optimization manager of StepForth, said.
“As the Internet becomes more populated with both users and content, a migration from general information sources to specific information sources is natural,” he said. “Trying to find a used car of any type using Google’s general search engine is like trying to find a grain of sand in a glass vase. A search engine dedicated to used cars on the other hand would likely guide the user to more accurate information faster.”
Hedger notes that Google’s job listing board has several vertical search positions open, proof that the large companies are taking the threat of specialists seriously. “Ultimately, it will be the users who determine if Vertical Search tools are viable as businesses,” Hedger added.
Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li told the E-Commerce Times that vertical sites might be able to beat Google and Yahoo at their own game in terms of targeting ads. However, there is still much to be determined in terms of pricing and reach of those sites, some of which might be gobbled up by the larger players in order to stay in the vertical game.
“The Google and Yahoo brands have powerful significance in overall search, but new brands may stake a claim on expertise in vertical segments,” Li said. If they do, the larger companies might find it easier to acquire those tools rather than to start from scratch.