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There Won’t be Vertical Search Engines!

“Vertical search engine” is an oxymoron.  Nevertheless, a new report from Jupiter Research uses a bad analogy from the development of TV to predict that the search engine industry will go vertical.  The report is summarized on the SearchViews blog and there is a press release on BusinessWire.  It won’t happen, says I, because broad search engines which span the whole web are what users want and need – even for extremely esoteric searches.

[Disclosure:  I didn’t buy the full report from Jupiter.  I am relying on their summary and the summary on SearchViews in arguing with it.]

Jupiter points out, correctly, that both viewers and advertisers benefit from the proliferation of vertical TV channels.  Users get the exact content they want; advertisers get the exact audience they want.  Google, Yahoo, and MSN are like the old ABC, CBS, and NBC, they say.  Soon there will be a proliferation of targeted search engines like the 500 channels of satellite TV, they predict, and advertisers will be able to focus their increasing buys of search engine exposures on exactly the engine whose users have exactly the demographic they want.

Wrong! The analogy is broken:

Each TV channel can only offer 24 hours of content per day.  Obviously, more content requires more channels.  The power of today’s search engine is that they offer the whole web and their reach grows as the web grows.  We don’t need more search engines to cover more content the way we needed more channels.

Because they can only broadcast one show at a time, “mainstream” channels avoid exotica.  The web doesn’t suffer from bandwidth limitation.  Exotica, minutia, trivia, and fascinating detail unheard of on any TV channel are as available as “mainstream” information through any search engine searching the whole web.

Except for regionalization, a TV channel offers only one ad at a time to its whole audience so you need a different channel to reach a different audience.  In theory, the combination of ads that pop on each of the billions of search pages returned each day could be unique.  Advertisers already get a degree of targeting impossible on television by the use of general purpose search engines.  They have a good chance of reaching the demographic they want by targeting the search terms they want to associate with.  Can this be better?  Of course, and it is improving.  But the answer isn’t a proliferation of narrowly focused search engines.

Even if vertical search engines were better for advertisers (which I don’t believe they are), they wouldn’t catch on because they’re not good for users.  Do you really want to have to guess which search engine crawls the part of the web which has the information you want today?  Do you really want to learn a different search engine UI for each category of information you want?

Looked at another way, what do you gain by having your search engine NOT index part of the web?  Nothing, is the answer.  What do you lose if the search engine only indexes part of the web?  A lot.  Suddenly you are dependent on whoever makes the range decision for the search engine seeing the world the way you see it. You would have to understand what each search engine meant by categories in order to decide which search engine to use for a particular search.  And, it might well turn out that the category you are interested in isn’t covered by any vertical search engine.

If the users won’t leave the great horizontal search engines for vertical ones, it doesn’t really matter if advertisers wish they would (Jupiter doesn’t seem to understand this basic marketing fact – at least in the summary of the report they published).  However, advertisers wouldn’t benefit either.  Targeting by key word already gives more selectivity than being limited to “only” 500 channels.  In various ways - some of them very legitimate, some of them not – actual information about the actual consumer can be considered along with the search words that indicate the consumer’s current interest and targeting can be incredibly precise.

On TV, an advertiser who chooses the Golf Channel to sell golf clubs is missing all the golfers who happen to be watching other channels at the moment.  This is often the right tradeoff to make given the limitations of TV.  But these limitations don’t exist in a horizontal search engine.  I can reach everybody who uses a golf word by buying those words. Just as on the Golf Channel, I don’t pay for those who aren’t interested in golf.  But, better than the Golf Channel, I get every customer of the horizontal search engines who is currently interested in my product.

I am not arguing that users won’t congregate around special interest content on the web just as they do around TV channels.  Nor am I arguing that an advertiser should ignore direct placement (or indirect placement through a search engine) on sites with specialized content which draws distinct demographics.  Specialized sites will continue to have specialized search interfaces for their own content – particularly if the content itself is inherently structured.  However, it is interesting to note that many sites have abandoned their internal search capability and, instead, just enable Google or other horizontal search engines on their site.  My blog and most others do this.  Much more importantly, so does Wikipedia which offers a choice of Google or Yahoo.

It is also true that communities form around common interests on the web.  These communities usually have some mechanism for referring items of presumed interest to each other.  The web sites of these communities are another place for targeted advertising.  However, even here, I suspect that the capabilities of the horizontal search engine will be used in most case to serve up the targeted ads.

When the Internet was first coming into popular use,  many people argued that it was too big and too unfocused.  They argued that there would continue to be specialized nonWeb networks like AOL and MSN were at the time.  That was wrong.  Those specialized networks have had to embrace the breadth of the web in order to survive.  Engineers argued that there would continue to be a proliferation of non-TCP/IP networks to meet special needs.  They were wrong.

The fallacy of these arguments and of Jupiter’s argument for vertical search engines is that they ignore Metcalfe’s Law.  Even though a specialized network can be tailored to special needs, it is extremely rare for the value delivered through that specialization to exceed the loss that comes from having a small network rather than a large one.  The value of a network is directly proportional to the square of the number of endpoints. The total added-together value of ten networks of one hundred endpoints each is only one-tenth the value of a single network combining all one thousand endpoints!

My prediction is the opposite of Jupiter’s.  The web isn’t going to become more like TV.  TV is going to become more like the web.  The next generation of DVRs with an ability to pull content from anywhere on the web and to serve specialized ads will make TV channels increasingly obsolete.  Programs will matter but channels will disappear as an unnecessary vertical construct in a horizontal world.

There have been lots of comments and other blogs on horizontal vs. vertical search engines since I wrote this.  I learn from some and argue with others in The Vertical Search Engine Debate.


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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference There Won’t be Vertical Search Engines!:

» re: Let's get Vertical from SearchViews
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» Vertical Search Engines from Rags' Soapbox
Tom Evslin, whose blog I've recently been reading and enjoying, is is skeptical of Jupiter's bullishness on vertical search engines. [Read More]

» Vertical Search Wars from Blog Indeed
Fred Wilson and Tom Evslin disagree on the future of vertical search. Fred blogs that vertical search is here to stay: If I was looking for a job, I'd go to Indeed instead of Google. Why would I use [this service]? Because the results are orders ... [Read More]

» Danny Sullivan on Shopping Search from Organized Shopping Blog
Bloggers have been going back and forth on the issue of vertical search, but now we have a weigh-in from search heavyweight Danny Sullivan. via ClickZ: "I can't say it enough. Vertical search is going to take over," he said.... [Read More]

» Silicon Valley's buzzing with Vertical Search from Om Malik on Broadband
You can't go two steps on Sand Hill Road, the epicenter of venture capital without some money man espousing the virtues of vertical search. So often you is it repeated that it harks back to the bubble era euphemisms like "market places," "new paradigms... [Read More]

» Vertical Search from Opinions on Business, Technology & Life from Ravi Dronamraju
To be honest, I think that this already played out on the web - with "Portals". We started with big web players like AOL, MSN, Y!, Excite and quite a few other players wanting to become the portal of choice for the users. A lot of niche services came u... [Read More]

» Job searching, a new way from Ztuff
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» Blogspeak on Vertical Search from The Software Abstractions Blog
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Andy Black

The E-consultancy/Convera "Vertical Search Survey 2008" has just been released and reveals some very interesting information.

CPM will be fastest-growing revenue stream for publishers in 2008
Online revenue set to increase while print income flattens or decreases

Content owners must ensure visibility within fragmenting digital landscape by embracing RSS, widgets and toolbars.

Publishers see vertical search as opportunity to ‘reclaim the online community from Google’.

The fastest-growing revenue streams for publishers in 2008 will be internet display advertising and online sponsorship.

Some 72% of publishers are expecting an increase in income from CPM advertising next year and 67% are predicting a rise in digital sponsorship, while print revenues are more likely to flatten or decrease. Just under two thirds (64%) are expecting a rise in paid search (PPC) revenue.

The findings come from a survey which was circulated to members of the Association of Online Publishers (AOP), American Business Media (ABM), Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB UK) and E-consultancy’s early-adopter community of internet marketers.

The research also highlights the need for specialist publishers to react quickly to major changes in the digital environment in order to maintain and increase their market share and visibility.

Publishers need to adapt to maximize their digital revenues at a time of shifting advertising budgets. Trends in digital marketing are leading towards a fragmentation of the online landscape and ‘atomization’ of content. Content owners have a great opportunity to increase visibility for their content through the effective use of vertical search, feeds, widgets and toolbars.

The level of uptake for feeds and customized homepages is very high among this early-adopter audience surveyed but this kind of online behavior will soon become more widespread among knowledge workers across a wider range of industries.”

Some 93% of more than 500 media and internet professionals said that they would be ‘very likely’ or ‘quite likely’ to use a search engine that focused on serving their specific business or work needs.

More than 70% of publishers perceived ‘reclaiming the online community from Google’ to be either a major benefit or a minor benefit from vertical search.

To download a free online copy of the full report, click here http://www.convera.com/survey/


An extract about a Press Release;

The first signs how verticals search engines claiming more importance.

Job site Monster.com finally makes it on the list of elite search engines accessible from portal leader yumgo.com

Yumgo is like an advanced Google with the ability to search other websites like Jobs, music, and private databases from one search box.

Yumgo agreed to talk with search engine expert Danny Soloman, weeks before the search engine expo at Islington Business design centre.

Danny - So what was the delay in getting Monster.com on the Yumgo website?

Yumgo - "It's been a busy month since we began introducing RSS into the main page of our website. This delayed the roll out of Monster.com and other vertical search engines"
Whilst adding Monster.com to our list or searchable websites, we also included Gofish and Bittorrent search engines.
Monster.com has an excellent database of open vacancies and we feel privileged to have monster on our website".
Our users have cried out for a job search engine which is accessible direct from their homepage. We have responded to this request and intergrated Monster.com.
We may include Totaljobs in the next upgrade but that all depends on what our users demand.

Danny - It clearly is far simpler to use Yumgo than any other search engine as you can search the web in general as well as specialist sites like Monster.com. Who's idea was this??

Yumgo - Tunde came up with the idea way back in 2003 when he created the first multi search engine.

Yumgo is a serious alternative to the old one search box approach when it comes to finding information because you can specifically target your search to any specialist website.

So far our users have access to one of the worlds leading jobsites direct from their Yumgo homepage, as well as access to various resources on the web that are generally not available from the big search engines.

Scott Rafer

Not only will TV become more like the web, but the web is becoming more like software. There are inversely correlated cycles of innovation and consolidation in technology businesses. As new media delivery technologies appear, media businesses copy that cycle, though historically over a much longer timeframe. As media becomes more technology-dependent, the cycle wavelengths are simply beginning to sync up.

Vertical search tools will become important, but only for a few years. As this innovation cycle winds up, a couple of search startups (including Feedster, of course) will be big enough to consolidate others into horizontal, all-purpose search. The rest will be consolidated.

David Kochanek

So, I've typed another search term into Google only to be underwhelmed by the relevance and overwhelmed by the quantity. So many results, so little time. Now, please, don't get me wrong, I like Google in a general "I'm not really sure what form my desired result will take" sort of way. It's just that when I know what I'm looking for, I'd much prefer a more targeted result. Thus, vertical search.


vertical search engine are providing me with relevant content. I have set up feed from indeed, workzoo and more and get job feeds. i dont go there, they come to me. and i can do that for a bunch more stuff.

i want to go vertical cause i know that those guys' focus is on harvesting more content more often. That getting me good jobs is what they have to do or they will be out of business. i go vertical for that extra special care.

and, i also go vertical cause no horizontal search engine gives me those industry specific fields...

Dunno. I like it.

Niki Scevak

Tom, I appreciated your critique on my vertical search report and have posted a reply on my blog (http://weblogs.jupiterresearch.com/analysts/scevak/archives/006739.html)

I have also emailed a full copy of the report to the email address listed in the about section, so you may read it in its entirety.

Brad Burnham

I agree with every argument that you make but disagree with your conclusion. You are correct that, from a users perspective, TV will become more like the web. There is no distribution bottleneck. There will be millions of discrete content elements, not hundreds of channels, and users will need comprehensive web wide search to navigate. You are also right that users will not benefit if "vertical" search engines are not as comprehensive as "horizontal" search engines. And yes, the specialized networks you mentioned MSN, AOL have not gained ground at the expense of the web in general.

From an advertisers perspective, I agree that there is no need to aggregate audience around narrow "vertical" content in order to target specific messages to them. This will be done through key words and through opt-in behavioral targetting systems that are completely independent of the specific content a one is reading at the moment.

So if I agree with all that, how can I still disagree with your conclusion. I believe that consumers will use the services that deliver the most value for the least effort. If the page rank algorithm were perfect, then one engine would rule them all - but it is not perfect.

If I am traveling to Paris,and I type Paris into Google, I am as likely to get Paris Hilton as Paris France, and the returns for Paris France are not organized for a traveller. The returns are organized in a much more useful way on Trip Advisor.

The problem of finding all the content and organizing it in a way that is most useful will depend more on the context of the search in the future as the web continues to grow, and the signal to noise ratio shifts against us. In addition, more and more content will be available only in data driven sites and will not even be revealed on the web unless you have a specialized crawler. It is already true for employment, dating, and travel.

So yes I agree the consumers need for comprehensive search and relevant, useful returns is what will shape the search landscape, but rather that drive a consolidation, it will lead to the fragmentation of search.

I also agree that consumers will not learn radically new interfaces for incrementally better results, but Google is teaching us all how to use search - more terms to narrow the search, using quotes etc. I expect the "vertical" search engines will use the same conventions so there will be little or no learning curve.

Your point about Metcalfe's law is an interesting one, but here again I come to a different conclusion. You use the "network effect" to make a point about the need for the most comprehensive search, but I beleive, as I said above, that "vertical" search engines will be more comprehensive. But, Metcalfe's law becomes much more interesting when you think of it in terms of people instead of content. If we get the point where the signal to noise ration is high enough that it seriously degrades the usefulness of search even in narrow "vertical" search engines, we may come to depend on people as the algorithm that sifts through the clutter. You can see the beginnings of this with collaborative filtering and tagging. The interesting question then will be: Are the results more useful when filtered through a web wide community or through a smaller community of like minded people. I don't no the answer there, but even if it turns out to be true that the larger people filter is better, I suspect that search will still fragment in the near term before it Metcalfe's law or in this context "the wisdom of crowds" drives a consolidation in the long term.

Abel Gonzalez

Really interesting article. I have reviewed it in my blog even translating a paragraph to spanish. I hope it is ok. Abel

Franco Cumpeta

Broadcast is born as a copy of the previous social organizations that strove to mantain living a link between humans. Our fundamental in those is a pyramid. Nobody else could take a different approach, there were no ways. I suggest to change the meaning of the IT term, it's no longer for Information Technology, but for Invariant in Transformations. Copyright Franco Cumpeta 2005 (giggle).

Visit my site
I sometimes forget what I wrote, but there's a mercyless memory of my either good end bad thoughts.

Having at hand only one way, the one consisting in to shape the world as species of a mountain peak to climb, we lost all the pleasures and intelligence that lies in the plain. Many have had aware of, but what the outlet could be from the blind alley.

Now it is, its name is Internet. Relativity theory isn't a mess compared with the classical (pyramidal) physic, it's simply a larger, broader, deeper, better, keeping care of time that first was neglected, way to tread the waves of this wonderful universe ve live in.

Innate resistance to change means nothing, it's already broken whan something that's really meaningful breaks the stage. Nothing is like previously was, we changed even if we think old thought about life and matter. We are different, despite our statements.


I agree that the prediction overlooks the actual nature of the web versus broadcast media.
I think people may develop a more specific/niched approach to search and may develop a preference - but for the vast majority to stray to new engines begs the innate resistance to change. If the big three are there they will get the searches.

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