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August 20, 2008

Getting Vertical Search Right

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Day 3 of SES San Jose and everyone looks a little tired from partying at the Googleplex last night. The coffee shop was out of bagels. That’s a crime. I’m going to starve. My kingdom for some scrambled eggs.

But enough about me. Moderator Lauren Vaccerello (FXCM) and panelists Philip James (Snooth, Inc), Jonathan Dingman (Digitally Imported, Inc) and Paul Forster (Indeed) are ready to go. On with the show!

Philip James is up first. Snooth is a wine search engine and marketplace. [bookmarks for later] He’s going to be talking about how to build your own vertical search and build traffic to it.

Why vertical search? The Web is too big and growing too fast for even the big guys to keep up which is leading to poorer results and endless tweaking of search queries by the searchers to try to get relevance. Vertical search solves that because you can focus on only the relevant part of the Web.

Vertical is a trade off. You’re smaller, so you get great relevancy but you have to balance specialization versus market size. Verticals can dominate the space, you only have 1-3 dominate players in any niche.

Getting the word out about your engine:
You use the generic engines. SEO if you have the content, SEM if you have a fast conversion cycle. He thinks you can use social media marketing (SMM) but it depends on the business. In all cases it’s about scalability. SMM is the hardest to scale.

Delivering better content:

  • New content search – blogs, images, videos
  • “Canned Search” — Dog friendly employers
  • Parametric search — more like a DB query
  • Semantic search — implied meaning, helped out by the fact that they’ve already self-selected the vertical– no need to discover what the intent is, it’s already clear.
  • Filters and relevant post search tools

“Spicy cali cab that’s good with beef” — easy to filter for that because you already know they’re looking for wine, not anything else.

Search refinement:

  • Price sliders
  • Buttons
  • Dropdowns
  • Tags

You’re able to search within results and narrow down your query.

You still need a business model. How to monetize? Advertising (sponsored listings, banner ads) Assuming $50 eCPM, you need 80 million pageviews / month to make $50m annually.

Referrals/lead generation (clicks or sales). At 10% per sale affiliate fees need to refer $500 million in sales. If $100 per transaction then 14000 transaction daily.

Pick your vertical carefully:

  • Weigh up market size/competition
  • Scalable acquisition of users
  • Provide a clear search benefit
  • Ensure page view volume or lead gen potential

Paul Forster steps up next. He starts off by defining vertical search (and he uses the blind men and the elephant example! A BC favorite.)

Vertical search characteristics:

  • Specialized data
  • Hidden Web (often behind forms)
  • Structured or semi-structured
  • Time-sensitive
  • Comprehensive search

Examples:

  • Travel – Kayak.com
  • Jobs – Indeed.com
  • Shopping – Become.com

Vertical search reveals the intent of the user.

Why does vertical search matter to marketers:

  • Specialized intent
  • Focused audiences (someone searching for SEM jobs in San Jose is probably an SEM in San Jose)
  • Google is bad at it (whatever type of vertical “it” is)
  • Spectacular traffic growth

First generation verticals sites (walled gardens) like Monster and Expedia still have more traffic than the newer vertical sites but the newer sites (search engines) have a lot of growth (versus stagnation or declined with the older sites). [There’s a chart here of the growth over the course of a year. It’s impressive.]

How do you market in a vertical engine?:

  • Organic inclusion — many allow you to provide a data feed directly to them. Often free. Optimize your data feeds — make sure the data is accurate, all fields are filled in correctly and comprehensive. Take out duplicates and make it reliable
  • Paid search — varies by site. Some are flat rate, some are auction based.
  • Emails, subscriptions and more. It varies by site.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What audience am I trying to reach? Be creative.
  • What kind of vertical search sites to use?
  • Does a prospective site get enough traffic? Use hitwise and comScore to see if it’s worth your time.
  • How significant is their partner networks? (Not as important as people make it seem but a small consideration anyway. Focus on the traffic to the main site.)
  • Is free organic inclusion on off?
  • Have I optimized my feeds?
  • What ad products does the site offer?
  • How can I track results and ROI?

Jonathan Dingman is up next. He’s the only non-Brit speaking but that’s okay, he’s from my hometown.

Like everywhere else, content is king. How do you stand out and be unique? If you’re a lyrics site, your content will be duplicated all over the Web. You need to make yourself unique in some other way. [He mentions that lyrics sites SERPS don’t change much, radio sites SERPS do. Because of content.]

If you’re thinking about getting into vertical search, you have to ask yourself if you can keep up.

  • Fast moving results
  • Staying on top of SEO
  • SEO– Links
  • SEO– Keywords
  • SEO– Stay relevant

Bottom line:

  • Be unique
  • Bring the visitor back to your site
  • Be memorable
  • Be unique

Know what the intent of the searcher is. Lyrics sites– people want the lyrics they’re looking for, not what’s hot or what’s new.

Give the user a good experience. If they don’t have a good experience, they don’t return. Keep it relevant and unique.

[Is he doing this on the fly?]

People get lazy–offer them an easy way to find the content. It’s about how you display the content to the user.

Q&A

Lauren: Why should I choose vertical search over general search?

Paul: Traffic is there and growing. Because many marketers don’t recognize this, there’s an opportunity there for cost effectiveness. Granularity of targeting can be a lot better. Some things are just easier to do with a vertical search. You can target intent much better.

Lauren: are there differences in semantic searches between generic and vertical engines?

Philip: They already broadcast their intent by coming to the site. The CPM rates and ad rates are higher but your ROI is usually better. It’s a better spend to show up and have people click and convert than showing up thousands of times on Facebook and never get the click.

What’s the implication of the chart showing the stagnation of growth? Why is that?

Paul: I think that it’s a better experience. Vertical searches do a better job of providing results and relevancy.

Philip: There’s a limited number of terms so we can refine the relevancy a lot better. Run some algorithms on it and you can find misspellings, synonyms, etc. Irrelevant words can be tossed out much more easily. You don’t need to be told you can’t spell you just need the results.

[Audience member starts his question by referencing pizza. Mmm, pizza]
How does the relevancy get focused for the people who are less search conscious? What is the interaction between the generics and the verticals?

Paul: I think one answer to the first question is refinement. Kayak has the refinement in the left rail. Indeed will pull up all the jobs that pay at least a salary number. Verticals prompt refinement.

Philip: The second question: there’s a symbiosis between the engines. Sometimes you’re taking traffic, sometimes you’re bringing them more traffic. Yahoo SearchMonkey is imbedding some vertical engines so that you’re getting more relevant information. Google has OneSearch. They’re clearly looking for ways to provide the content and the verticals can provide that.

Paul: Related to that, one of the problems for general search engines is do you use your own service or do you use whatever the best out there is? Do you use GoogleBase only or do you include Indeed? It’s a struggle for them.

How do you define success? Are you trying to get someone to their Chicago pizzeria as quickly as possible? What tools are searchers using?

Jonathan: Success is whatever your marketing goals are. Are you looking to get ad clicks or sales? Tools vary depending on how users are using the site.

Philip: Agrees that it’s business goals. The only one that drives all of it is more users, so more users is good. We find that people don’t always know where to begin so they start with a generic search (usually price on Snooth) and then they use the refinement tools.

Paul: Agrees with all the previous but says that only 5 or 10 percent use the refinement tools and most people just use the search box. That’s a challenge for them is figuring out how to get people to use them. Repeat visitors is a good measure of success.

Lauren: How can the everyday marketers take advantage of the vertical search industry?

Philip: Figure out who the vertical search engines are that are relevant and cut out the ones without enough traffic. That whittles it down pretty quickly for the ad side. Get a feed up and running if you’re selling a product is important. Once you set up one feed you can set up others with slightly different standards pretty easily.

Paul: Research what advertising products different sites have. Can you send a feed? Can you do it organically? If not how much does it cost? It is pay for performance? Can you set a budget? Are there email marketing opportunities? It’s very diverse. The user experience is much simpler than the marketers’ experience. The big point is traffic. Don’t waste your time on sites that don’t get traffic.

What’s the difference between a vertical search engine and a vertical portal?

Paul: I like the thing the difference is that vertical engines are trying to be comprehensive. They’ve got more inventory and more relevancy than a walled garden.

Philip: I don’t know the difference. I think the two converged. There are vertical search engines that interweave social commerce and makes them like a portal.

Jonathan: Looksmart is a good example of a company that really adopted vertical search. But they don’t display just their own results. That’s the difference to me. Vertical search displays more than just your own results. The user gets a better experience.

Philip: Shop.com is a good example that defines the coalescence. Some you can buy at Shop.com and some you click through to buy at another site.

Lauren: Where do you see vertical search going?

Paul: I think it’s going to become a dominant way of finding time sensitive, date sensitive, structured material. I think there’s a lot of denial from the walled garden sites whose models are threatened by the vertical search experience.

Philip: I think integration with the generic engines is going to be key like SearchMonkey. We’ll see if Google continues to license and rebrand or not. When a big engine like Yahoo aligns with one vertical, that’s sort of game over for the others in the space. If you’re Yelp, you win but everyone else loses.

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