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September 12, 2006

Does Every Niche Need An Engine?

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Right on the heels of last week’s Search N Sniff release, John Battelle released his own Digg-like search news site on Search Blog nicknamed SearchMob. Yes, it’s Search Blog’s SearchMob, not to be confused with the other SearchMob.

Like the digg-esque sites that have come before it, the basis behind SearchMob is that users can register and submit stories to the site, which are then voted up the ranks, hopefully landing on the ever-important front page. It sounds like a solid business plan, after all, the premise is simple and is proven to work at least as long as it takes for your members to revolt and gather their toys and go home.

But after the flop of Search Engine Press and the lukewarm launch of Search N Sniff, does the search world really want another niche-based rating system site? Or is it possible for these niche sites to transform into something more, like perhaps a niche search engine? Is that any better?

Obviously, the success of SearchMob will ultimately rely on the devotion of its users and those submitting and rating stories. Do I think lightning will strike twice and SearchMob will transform itself into another Digg? Of course not, but I do think SearchMob has a chance at forming a loyal following. SearchMob has something that Search N Sniff does not – John Battelle, and in this industry, that means something.

The problem SearchMob will have is that the idea behind it is no longer unique. The users who are attracted to the vote and rank business model are already doing it somewhere else. Is the name John Battelle a strong enough motivation for them to leave their communities? I guess we’ll see.

The main reason sites like these interest me is because I can’t help but wonder their long-term effect. If users do get behind SearchMob, what will it look like in five years? Will it still be a voting and ranking site or will it have evolved into a full-blown niche search engine? What about Digg? How long before users get tired of the controversy and spending their Friday nights voting and burying stories?

While today we’re bombarded with an array of vote and rank sites, I think in a few years we’ll see these sites “progress” and evolve into topic-oriented search engines. Quite frankly, that idea doesn’t excite me either.

Unless I’m specifically looking for opinion, niche search engines do nothing for me. When I search, I don’t want to limit myself to sources that have been deemed search marketing or SEO-friendly. I want to search the entire Web. That’s why I’m performing a search in the first place. If I wanted things from strictly a search marketing perspective, I’d use Mike Valentine’s SEO Bloggers & Blogs search (very cool, by the way) to scour the blogs I know or I’d use ChaCha’s guided search and take a more 411 approach.

Niche search engines may be helpful on that rare occasion when they’re able to filter out the rest of the noise, but they’ll never be the preferred way to search. My needs will almost always be better met by a traditional engine.

Which is why the new Netscape engine doesn’t appeal to me either, even though Jason Calacanis swears it’s the best of both worlds. For me, the medley of traditional search, tags and social aspects, it tries to be My Everything, and in the end, leaves me with virtually nothing. When I try and give Netscape a shot I feel smooshed between all that text, I resent having to scroll for days and I usually have no idea what I’m looking at. When I think of the engines adopting social search full-time, I think of Netscape. And then my stomach starts to hurt.

Social search has undoubtedly left its mark. It’s impact and influences can be seen through GYM’s list of services (Google Co-Op, Yahoo! Answers, etc), but I think it’s something that will always remain complementary to core search. It will never replace it. And that’s how I view these vote and rank sites and their eventual successor, the niche search engine.

It’ll be interesting to see what the Diggs of the world grow up to be. Will they stay as they are, develop into niche engines or evolve into something we haven’t even thought up yet? We’ll find out after a few tomorrows.

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