Ask the modern-day equivalent of the man on the Clapham omnibus to name a search engine, and Google will probably be first on the list, with MSN, Ask and Yahoo! trailing along behind. All the figures show that Google still accounts for the majority of searches conducted in this country.
But ask the same Everyman (or Everywoman) which sites they go to when they are searching for something that they are particularly interested in – be it cars, travel, mortgages, gardening or French Nouvelle Vague movies – and the chances are you will get a multiplicity of answers.
In fact, there are hundreds of search engines around the world, and tens if not hundreds of thousands of specialist directory sites.
The Technology Works product strategy director Daniel Mohacek says: “Some engines are particularly good at niche searches.” As an example, he points to specialist engineering site applegate.co.uk. “It provides very high quality information about the engineering profession. All its pages are really user-friendly, and because of that they tend to come further up the search results on the big engines. And it actually supplies information to Google.”
Finding a Niche
Google, MSN and Yahoo! Search are general search engines: they aim to catalogue as much of the information to be found on the internet around the world as possible, and index it according to their increasingly complex and proprietary mathematical algorithms, so that when ordinary Web users type in the keywords they are interested in, the results they see first are the most relevant and useful.
Sophisticated Web users, however, will search for things of particular interest on specialist search or directory sites. Sometimes, such specialist sites will have “bought in” search software from one of the general engines, so what is different about them will be that users will usually start by searching information just to be found on those pages, rather than the entire Web. Other sites take search software off “white label” suppliers, or develop their own systems.
To meet this demand, Google has just launched a version of its search engine, Google Co-op, which has been designed to be easy for site owners to customise. For example, site publishers can specify which sites are to be included or excluded in a search, and display the results under their own logo.
The biggest problem for niche sites trying to provide a search service – and generate revenue from doing so – is the volume of users. As David Turner, director of commercial operations at search marketing specialist Ambergreen, says: “How are they going to get the traffic?” The problem also involves how people search online. Initially, Turner says, with an area someone has no particular knowledge of, they will use the general search engines such as Google or Yahoo! as a “default”. But users will soon begin to identify individual sites they find useful, and those sites will become their starting point for future searches.
Duncan Dunlop is UK general manager for Oodle, the local classifieds search engine, which aggregates listings from Loot, eBay, GumTree and Rightmove, and also operates a classified search facility for The Sun. He says: “We are a vertical search engine. We think we can do a better job than the general search engines, because we can provide a much deeper, richer search experience for the users. And if we can do that, then we can provide a much more tar-geted market for advertisers.”
The Oodle search service is based on software bought in from specialist technology supplier Fast, which is then modified. “Fast provides the infrastructure, but we have refined it for the classified industry. We have a number of patents pending on our proprietary algorithms,” adds Dunlop.
He certainly believes that niche or vertical search sites have a future, and argues: “If you were buying a flight, you might start the search on Google, but you’d go to a specialist site to actually buy the ticket.”
Some experts prefer to talk about niche searches in a slightly different way. Red Eye International head of search marketing Brian McNamara says one of the major topics of conversation in the search industry today is the difference between “short-tail” and “long-tail” searches. The former tend to be the general searches, where people will be using relatively simple keywords; the latter are the more complex searches, where people know enough about a topic to use strings of keywords designed to sort the wheat from the chaff. McNamara says: “The benefit of long-tail terms is that, though you’re looking at reduced volume, the people that are searching are more likely to convert, as they have been actively looking for your unique niche product or service.”
He adds: “Tailoring your search campaigns to target long-tail search terms that are specific to your products and services has a number of benefits. In pay per click, it cuts down on the amount of competition on the terms and means the bid amounts are usually very low. As it’s unlikely your competitors would have content on your niche products and services, they won’t be able to compete with you on these terms. With search engine optimisation, by ensuring that you have good content on your products and services, you can ensure you appear at the top.
“Again, lack of competition on these phrases means that you can achieve a number one position quickly, while appearing number one for a broader, more searched-on and therefore more competitive term could take months of continual fine tuning.”
Arguably, social networking sites are effectively niche search sites. For example, YouTube and AutoTrader may look very different, one being a site where people can post or find and view user-generated video content, and the other a UK classified market for cars, but what people are using them for is essentially the same – searching for information of particular interest.
Spannerworks head of content and media, Antony Mayfield, thinks that global search engines and specialist niche sites can co-exist in relative harmony.
Mayfield points out that there is a growing trend for people to share searches. There is even a website, www.rollyo.com – derived from “roll your own search engine” – which allows users to create their own search engines by pulling together a network of sites relevant to a particular topic, then saving them, giving them a name and then posting them for others to use.
Rollyo is not the only search site to be playing around with this idea – Google and Yahoo! have been talking about developing similar ideas for a long time.
Mayfield also warns that the growth of niche searching, social site searching and shared searching are going to have major implications for brands. “Brands and markets exist within these networks – you have to understand how to navigate them. The more complex the Web becomes, the more specialist networks will evolve. Google works so well, he argues, because it functions as a “network of networks”.
And of course, Google’s dominance of the global search market was largely driven in its early years by word-of-mouth, with users recommending it to friends.
Kate Burns, former Google director for the UK, Ireland and Benelux, and now head of search for digital media company Adlink, says: “There is a future for niche sites – and it’s a very strong future for those that are good. But they have a steep mountain to climb because the quality of Google searches is only going to get better.”
There are already some very good specialist search engines and directories, but there are still some opportunities, Burns says: “How about a search engine that specialises just in high street fashion? I’d use it. And will someone please create a clothes site for children – I’m tired of dressing my daughter in pink…”