Vertical vs. Horizontal Search Engines

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So-called vertical search is all the rage. Why? Partly because “horizontal” (general) search has limitations and partly because it’s almost impossible to get VCs to fund a general search engine. Given how entrenched the market is it’s also crazy to try and break into general search without a 5 to 7 year time horizon.

This week (so far) I spoke with two vertical search sites, Generate and SearchMe. The latter just launched the new Wikiseek, which was favorably reviewed on TechCrunch and critically reviewed on Search Engine Land.

Generate is a sales tool and, for descriptive convenience, an impressive combination of Factiva + Lexis/Nexis and LinkedIn (although they would say this doesn’t do justice to their platform). SearchMe was founded to build a range of vertical search engines, with Wikiseek being just the first one.

What intrigues me about vertical search is not whether someone can build an engine deeper and richer than general search. Rather I’m interested in how that richness or improvement is effectively conveyed to consumers. Will people get it and will they change their behavior accordingly — meaning switch to the vertical engine? Or, is everyone doomed to perpetually play the SEM traffic arbitrage and/or SEO game?

People say to me that a better experience will be self-evident and that will motivate the change in usage. I’m not so sure. It’s really an empirical question that has yet to fully play out.

It’s ultimately brand that drives usage and, even more, loyalty. Of course brand is an expression of other things. It took Google more than five years to reach its position of market dominance. Although MySpace and YouTube rose much faster in their respective categories.

Greg Sterling is the founding principal of Sterling Market Intelligence, a consulting and research firm focused on online consumer and advertiser behavior and the relationship between the Internet and traditional media, with an emphasis on the local marketplace.

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