Vertically Searching for Meaning

Originally published March 8, 2005 in MediaPost

The original title of this column was supposed to be controversial –
“How to Kill Vertical Search in Utero.” With all the hype and hoopla
over consumer-facing vertical search, my gut kept telling me we were
about to stifle the innovation and opportunity before it really begins.

In researching this piece further, initially by bouncing ideas off
fellow columnists and then by reading research commentary by
JupiterResearch’s Niki Scevak and Hitwise’s Bill Tancer, I’ve softened
up… a little.

My biggest problem remains with the definition of vertical search.
What is a vertical search site? Below is a definition that is entirely
my own, vetted by no one, but it’s a starting point.

  A vertical search site or application must exhibit four key characteristics:

  1) It focuses on a specific category.
2) The primary functionality revolves around search.
3) There are multiple competing content providers contributing to the results.
4) The natural results are ranked by relevance.

  To better understand the definition, let’s look at examples to see if it might affect how we perceive vertical search.

  Google: This is easy. Its broad focus disqualifies it
from being a vertical search site. Froogle, its shopping site,
qualifies as vertical search. Google News is trickier. One can peruse
Google News much in the same way one reads a newspaper: Scan the
headlines and read what’s interesting. Searching aids the
functionality, but do users see the site has a headline aggregator or a
news search source?

  Yahoo!: Clicking any of the tabs from the home page such
as “News” and “Products” points to a clear search focus. However,
News.Yahoo.com is heavily focused on browsing, not searching.

Now we get into an even murkier distinction. Does it matter if
someone’s searching or browsing? Searching is more active and the user
has more control. Yet in both, the site must make assumptions to return
relevant results and organize them in a logical order. Searching and
browsing are different enough that the distinction merits the fourth
rule above.

  Monster.com: Vertical search site? The first two
definitions apply perfectly, especially once you click “Search Jobs” on
the home page. There are also multiple competing content providers, in
a sense. AOL and MSN can vie head to head to attract the same
interactive ad sales professional or programmer. Yet something feels
wrong with adding Monster to the list. Let’s compare Monster to a
‘truer’ job search site.

  Indeed.com: Here, multiple job sites are included, and
the interface is entirely about search. Contextual ads from Google foot
the bill. Any job site can take part, and Indeed directs all visitors
to the participating site. This is especially appealing for users, with
little upside for Indeed.

  SideStep: This travel deal-finder partners with airlines
(several of which are through its alliance with Orbitz), hotels, and
car rental companies to scour sites for the best deals. Its browser
toolbar has logged over 7 million downloads, and users can now search
the site directly. SideStep is the reason why I included “site or
application” in the definition; other applications for mobile phones
and instant messaging could also fall under vertical search.

  Ticketmaster.com: It meets every requirement. Anyone can
request to sell tickets through the site, and while the search
functionality is subtle, arguably few people go there saying, “I have
$200 to blow. I wonder what’s in town?”

  Citysearch: In a similar vein, it’s a local and vertical
search site that begs yet another question: Where does local search end
and vertical begin? Are they mutually exclusive or overlapping?

  eBay: Count this as a vertical search site and you need
to up those industry forecasts. How different is eBay from Yahoo!
Shopping? With the hybrid paid inclusion (eBay – to list items; Yahoo!
– to enroll in merchant services) and pay-for-performance models, their
DNA has much in common. I’ve wondered for some time about whether eBay
would or should launch a search engine, and Amazon’s A9 adds more
credibility to the musing. Go to eBay and you’re greeted with, “1.
Find: What are you looking for?” In many ways, it’s a search engine
already. A vertical one at that.

  CNET Download.com: Search for software downloads from an array of publishers.

  Epicurious: Find recipes culled from various sources.

  Internet Movie Database (IMDB.com): Search for
information and news about every actor, film, and TV show. The Unix
version of the site dates back to 1990, making it one of the oldest
online search applications that ever existed.

Are we heralding vertical search too late? Are we defining it too
narrowly? Can a site be vertical and local, designed for searching and
browsing? Are we too hung up on names?

  If you want to be humbled, ask the users, the customers.

I was instant messaging with a friend as I finished the column, and
she asked what I was doing. I tried explaining vertical search to her,
and even after spending hours writing about the definition, it proved
remarkably difficult – and this is to a PhD candidate. She asked, “What
are you possibly writing about [vertical search] to make that
interesting?” I said, “It’s the hottest topic to talk about in the
search business.” She asked, “Why?”

  Let’s honor the customers’ wishes, stop talking to ourselves, and get back to work.