Vertical Search: The Early Years

There's been no shortage of discussion about how vertical search might provide publishers with new opportunities as well as refuge from the seemingly unstoppable incursions of the major search engines. The simple theory behind vertical search is that subject matter experts can find and organize information on specific markets better than a general search engine trying to cover everything at once. The thinking is that a vertical search engine will deliver deeper, richer and more relevant results to users. This is achieved by working harder to include relevant resources (especially those not on the open Web), and working just as hard to exclude inappropriate content. One of the most ambitious -- and impressive -- implementations of vertical search is offered by GlobalSpec, and vertical search is so integral to the company's strategy that GlobalSpec now positions itself as "The Engineering Search Engine."

Intriguingly, there are now vertical search applications coming out of the general search engines themselves. Google launched its Google Scholar vertical search application to great fanfare in 2004, providing not just a filtered view of its general search index, but also metadata pointers to enhance discovery of offline and paid access content, along with power searching features designed to meet the specific needs of academics. We also have an announcement from Microsoft of its new Windows Live Academic Search, aimed squarely at Google Scholar, and based on the Windows Live platform, which is being readied to replace the current MSN search engine. Microsoft Live Academic Search is actively encouraging publishers to contribute abstracts of paid content. Even the general search engines realize that vertical search requires rolling up your sleeves, actively looking for relevant content, both free and paid, and working tirelessly to deliver search results decidedly more comprehensive and focused than a general search engine can offer.

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But at its current state of evolution, vertical search is much more of a site attraction than a product. Vertical search is great for building site traffic. It appears to be good for building user loyalty and driving repeat visits, but for now at least it's not a money-maker. Google and Microsoft derive no revenue from their respective offerings. GlobalSpec has ingeniously woven its vertical search feature around its paid directory content, but as a stand-alone, its vertical search engine would not be a major source of revenue. Of course, it's entirely possible that vertical search engines can sell keywords just like the big search engines, but it's not clear yet what level of traffic is required to get meaningful advertiser participation, and it seems almost certain that some vertical markets will be too small to monetize vertical search in this way.
So while it seems clear to many that that vertical search is going to be big and important, the path to monetization is still murky.