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March 17, 2008

Orion Panel: Getting Vertical Search Right

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Day 1 is almost over already. Can you believe it? The topic of this afternoon’s Orion Panel is Getting Vertical Search Right with speakers Bill Tancer (HitWise), Jason R. Finger (Seamless Web), Paul Forster (Indeed), Steven Krine (Organized Wisdom), and Joshua Stylman (Reprise Media). Kevin Ryan and Rebecca Lieb is acting as moderator on this one.

As an aside, Jason works for SeamlessWeb and offers up a special promo code for attendees to get free food or free delivery on their food. I don’t know. Something. The code is "ses2008" so go use it and let me know what you get.

Bill Tancer starts things off by rattling off some statistics and talking points.

Where do we search? If you combine the major search engines, they add up to 98 percent of all searches on the Internet. There’s two percent that fits into the "other" category. Hitwise is tracking millions of other search engines. There are the searches that occur on the major engines and then there are the searches we conduct on vertical-specific sites. And a lot of people get to those sites via the search engines.

Where is Search Leading Us?

Combine the search sites and look where people go when they leave search. The bulk of them are going to computer and Internet sites – mostly other search engines or social sites. It’s a good way to see where the search funnel is going in the US. The top ten sites users are going to after they leave their original search are: Google Image Search, MySpace ,Wikipedia, eBay, YouTube, Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Google, Yahoo and Windows Live Mail.

People are going to the URL and they’re typing in Orbitz or Travelocity. A lot of that manual behavior still exists. There is a part for vertical specific sites to play. The complexity is that people start at search engines. If that’s the case, what’s to prevent them from dominating that space and what value can a vertical-specific engine to play?

Rebecca: How vertical and how fragmented can we get until people become too confused and splintered?

Bill: The search engines can tackle vertical. The question is how much do they want to do and lose potential for revenue? Back in the 1990s, local search was the end all and be all of vertical search. The major search engines have shown they can dominate it.

Paul: People know that vertical sites exist and that they’re a different product. They may go through Google, but they end up on another engine and have a totally different experience. They’re trying to do the same thing on all the different sites they touch. The general search engines are becoming an entry point to the vertical engines. People go there to do a second entry search.

Josh: Everyone is trying to be a vertical engine. When someone is performing a job search, Google wants to a job search engine. When someone is doing a local search, Google wants to be a local engine.

Paul: Search engines are not designed to do vertical search well. There are various attributes to the data that general search engines are not good at searching.

Bill: Bill agrees. He mentions Google Base. Here’s an engine that allows you to put in multiple variables and it’s slowly getting some traffic. It’s clear that search engines can address some of these vertical aspects.

Rebecca: Brand is an interesting factor. Rebecca found out about SeamlessWeb because she sees stickers for it in her neighborhood. It doesn’t come up in the search results. She asks Jason how they’re marketing the service.
Jason: They operate in 14 cities but only within certain neighborhoods of those cities. They’re focusing on direct and word of mouth marketing. Kevin says he’s doing the Seth Godin approach to search engine optimization, meaning they do no search engine optimization at all. Heh. The site and their efforts are growing. They now allow users to rate and review users now since they have hundreds or thousands of reviews on the site. That information is more valuable now that there are more users.

Kevin asks each of the speakers what problem their site solves. What’s everyone’s niche? [Why are we asking this? Is this an infomercial? – Lisa]

Paul: There was a gap for a service that provided a comprehensive job search. That’s why they launched Indeed. It enables the job searcher to do one search. They’re really applying the general search model to the job vertical.

Steve: Organized Wisdom Health really came out of a problem him and his wife had when they were trying to have a baby. They realized how broken the algorithms were when they were looking for other people’s stories with infertility issues and couldn’t find them. He wondered if you could ever hire someone to search for you, to search all the different health-related sites and give you the most high quality links. Organized Wisdom does the searching for people. They have Wisdom Cards – high quality list of links to the best resources. It’s sort of Mahalo-like. You can see pre-published search results. They’ve also layered Request Wisdom where you can ask people to do search for you if the card isn’t already made. They also have Live Wisdom searching where you can talk to someone (for a fee). They look at as a service on top of the algorithms.

Kevin: Yeah, but people are stupid. There are a lot of really stupid people. When you pull all these stupid people together, sometimes we have mass hysteria. How do you create the environment where people are going to be sticking around because it’s valid information?

Steve: This isn’t user generated search results. It’s guided. They employ full time guides to hand craft the search results and keep up with them over time. All of their traffic comes from the search engines. They use the same platform as Wikipedia. They don’t let people muddy up the high quality search results. They keep out the stupid people.

Jason: He worked at a law firm. He worked overnight and got very hungry. Called a number of restaurants and everything was closed or they didn’t deliver. He got a bit frustrated, handed the memo in, and told a friend he couldn’t find a restaurant open late for delivery. They began thinking of ways to solve that problem from the user perspective. How can they keep it updated in real time? They tried to solve it initially from the user and employer perspective.

Kevin: Let’s talk about the audience. How are people getting to the site? He was on SeamlessWeb and a little Facebook app popped up and freaked him out.

Jason: Jason admits that yes, they have a Facebook application. They also provide Google with a feed of all their restaurants that they work with and that information comes up in their search results for local searches.

Steven: They launched OneSearch so you can search all the vertical search engines that are out there at the same time. The health vertical is a very important vertical; it’s high stakes. They look at what they do as holding the hand of people going to the Internet to look up a very serious issue.

Rebecca: Isn’t Google Health already kind of doing that?

Steve: Google Health will give you the top 5 libraries of content that everyone licenses, but there’s so much more than that out there. His service knows what sites are the best for which category. They talk to people to decide what needs to be added. Google just points you to libraries.

Josh: Is part of the local search about taking the content and freeing it from the container?

[A good question that no one really answers.]

Steven: There are obviously general social networks like Facebook, but then there are more specific networks, as well. Social networks are one of the many resources you need to look at if you’re looking for people who have had different experiences.

Josh: There are two dimensions of social networking. There’s people looking to find someone (or avoid someone) and then there’s the growing community.

Rebecca: How much are social networks a search tool as opposed to a discovery tool?

Kevin: You’re here for the altruistic reasons, right? Not because of ads. /sarcasm.

Paul: It’s an interesting point. With the PPC model, there’s a real tension there between optimizing the experience for users and sales. You just can’t do it. With the search model, that tension isn’t there. You can include everyone’s listings for free and create a comprehensive list for free.

Steven: They look at this as each wisdom card they create with very filter, handcrafted search results. They allow sponsors to sponsored wisdom cards. There’s a huge value on the service that we’re providing. In order for us to do that for free, we have to support it with advertising. They charge you to talk to a doctor about what you’re searching for. They’re trying to keep it as free or low cost as possible.

Jason: As it relates to restaurant is that it’s not a technology advanced community. They also offer consultancy programs to restaurants. They’ll tell them if they don’t have popular dishes for their area. They’re enabling customers to make an informed purchasing decision, while also helping business owners to better serve these customers.

Kevin: That’s going to play out in these models. We’ll see vertical specific search in the areas where it’s necessary to provide users with a better way to search for things. And we’ll also see more vertical-related content.

Joshua: If you think about the peanut butter manifesto is was that Yahoo needed to focus. The engines are really good at finding stuff on the Web. They’re trying to be all things to all people. People on the panel are showing you can go deeper and provide a richer experience. Things about the analogy of cable TV. A 24 hour news network seemed crazy at the time.

Jason: Service on top of search is a really powerful tool. Are the engines too broad or do they have an opportunity to drill down? At SeamlessWeb, they try to facilitate a transaction.

Kevin: The value is in important. Serving the audience in unique ways is important. We hear Yahoo Buzz climbing against Digg. Talk about that.

Bill: It’s another example of a search engine leveraging content that they have can beat out an entrenched player. As Josh mentioned, when you look at search engines, 90 percent of it is really search content downstream. It’s very rarely their own content. They help us to find things better. It will increase the opportunity for business that specialize in vertical content to find an audience.

Paul: Vertical search is idiosyncratic. It’s not easy for a general engine to knock off all the niches. Niche search is very different and the vertical engines are becoming more sophisticated. To what extent can you tap into the behavior of users to improve the relevance of search results? To what extent can you tap into the clickstream data? This is all different from one vertical to another.

Rebecca: What are the big untapped marketing opportunities in vertical search engines?

Joshua: Marketers will go where the eyeballs are. You have to train your father NOT to go to Google first or to use Google as a true portal. If you think about the common attributes of all the search engines, structured data is a huge, huge thing to have.

Audience Question: Why should the top results in Google be based on the firms who have the best SEO efforts? What’s your advice to SEO and SEMs about how they can use you to compliment their blended search efforts?

Steven: Their cards start at a Google search and then weed out the stuff that shouldn’t be there and add the stuff that should be.

Paul: One of the keys is to look at the metrics. It doesn’t make sense to say you haven’t heard of a vertical search engine and say you’re not going to bother. You want to look at the traffic and the growth and decide if that’s the kind of audience you’re looking for.

Bill: Be aware of the changes in user search behavior. There’s an increase between single term queries. It’s about increasing brand. Then we see this increase in multiple word queries. Consumers are getting more intelligent and are searching for things more specifically. Use HitWise data.

Kevin: Users aren’t getting any smarter. You can train a monkey to search better.

[Yikes. Kevin is just as snarky as he was this morning.]

Steven: High quality sites do well in the search engines and with users. With a human being taking a look at your site, will they want to include your site in their search results? On the SEM side, the biggest opportunity is that you can go so deep and so specific that you’ll find your exact audience. In vertical search, it’s about going really long tail. It’s teeing up your audience on a single platter for you.

Key Takeaways:

Paul: Take away the immediacy of vertical search engines. Look at the metrics. See what the traffic is for the sites that are important to you. Do your analysis and run tests and then build on campaigns

Josh: Vertical Search is only in the early stages. It’s going to grow. If you’re an advertiser, think about how to create content and make it accessible and you’ll rank well. [Kevin cuts him off.]

Bill: Layer some value-add on top of the content and provide a way to search that’s not available in the search engines

Steven: The future of vertical search is service. Think about people clicking on your site and making a decision about whether or not they’d add you to their listing. Human search is here to stay.

Jason: Vertical search is going to become an increasing paradigm in the future.

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