Healthy Future for Vertical Search Engines?

One observer commenting on what could be gleaned from AOL’s privacy-exploding release of search data noted that there seems to be a need for at least three kinds of vertical search engines: one covering religion, one for porn (of course) and one concerned with health. While I can’t speak for the first two, the niche market represented by the last of the three has a thriving future, judging from how many rivals have entered that space. This two-part series take a look at how both the major search engines and the specialized ones are addressing that need.

Inevitably when the topic turns to specialized search engines, one has to ask if we really need them. After all, Google, Yahoo, and others do a pretty good job of delivering relevant search results, and they’re getting better all the time, right? That turns out to be only partially right – and for certain subject matter, it can be (almost literally) dead wrong.

Let’s look at the broad example of questions related to health. General search engines try to go for breadth as opposed to depth. Because of this, your results might not be as reliable or specialized as you might like. This is particularly true of the sponsored links for a search on something like “weight loss.” How do you know what to believe?

Beyond that point, everyone has their own medical history, and the answers to many questions that one might search for online may be very different based on factors such as age, sex, family history, etc. With doctors becoming more difficult to afford and consumers paying more of the burden for their own health care, many people are spending more time searching for health information before ever seeing someone with a stethoscope. That trend looks set to continue especially as the general population grows proportionately older (20 percent of the U.S. population will be over the age of 65 by 2030, according to the Department of Health and Human Services). An older population means more people suffering from chronic illnesses – and more people needing health information at their fingertips.

Can we trust general search engines to deliver that information? A Jupiter Research report from January of this year noted that nearly half of online consumers search for health information at least once a month – but only 16 percent of these searchers found what they were looking for. It seems as if there is significant room for improvement.

It’s no surprise, then, that several companies have tried to fill in that gap, including the major search engines. Google offers some interesting refinements on certain health-related search queries. Yahoo offers its own combination health portal and search engine, Yahoo Health. MSN has something similar called MSN Health & Fitness.

There are also search engines especially devoted to health. Kosmix boasts several vertical search engines, including one specifically for health; I reviewed the site back in March. It seems to have added several new vertical engines since then. There is also Healia, a relatively new addition with four years of research behind it. Like Kosmix, Healia is still in beta, though it went live to the public in mid-September. Healthline offers more of a portal look and feel in addition to the search engine, while Vimo lets its users comparison shop for doctors, insurance plans, and even surgical procedures.

So how do these diverse engines stack up? Well, let’s start with the major search engines. I’m going to give them both an easy query and a couple of more challenging ones. For the easy query, let’s go with “breast cancer.” For something a little more challenging, I’m going to use a related topic that a woman doing research on this might be curious about: “BRCA testing.” For the hard one, I have to give credit to Healia: “ACL.” This is short for “anterior cruciate ligament,” a stabilizing ligament that connects your thighbone to your shinbone, and can be torn when you twist or knee or fall on it.

So the first step is to start with a search on the term “breast cancer” on Google. The top two results are sponsored links, and of course there are a number of sponsored links to the right. The other links on the first page appear to go to educational sites, such as the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

But Google also gives you the option of refining your results; just below the sponsored links and just before the organic results, you can click on links for treatment, symptoms, tests/diagnosis, causes/risk factors, for patients, for health professionals, from medical authorities, and alternative medicine. Clicking on the various links gives you different results, or at least rearranges the ones you get.

Google does even better with BRCA testing. It doesn’t show the links to narrow down your search as it did for breast cancer; it also doesn’t show any sponsored links at the top, and only two at the side. The first organic result directs you to WebMD and is specifically labeled “Breast Cancer (BRCA) Gene Test.” The third link leads to a page that asks “Who Should be Tested for BRCA Gene Mutations” and the fifth link leads to a page that explains details of the test itself.

So far we’re highly relevant – but not surprisingly, Google falls down on the ACL query. This is where a general search engine shows its weakness. Only the fourth link is relevant, because ACL in the general world can mean anything from Austin City Limits to the Association for Computational Linguistics (and much else besides).

Let’s try the same set of searches over at Yahoo Health. Unlike Google’s search, I didn’t get there directly; I went to the Yahoo home page and clicked on the link for more Yahoo services first, and then clicked on the one for health. As I mentioned before, this site is not a bare search engine, but a portal – and it has a tab for breast cancer. Clicking on that link brought up more links that covered particular topics, such as mammography, lifestyle and prevention, etc. These links led to articles discussing the topic in question, as well as links to related topics.

Clicking on a general link within this tab for more on breast cancer took me to a sort of breast cancer portal, with links to more information than I could shake a stick at. But it seemed well-organized; beyond the eye-catching items, there were links to specific topics, including symptoms and diagnosis, treatments, medications, and more. There were also links on this portal to Yahoo Groups for breast cancer.

I still felt obligated to do an actual search on the phrase “breast cancer” in the Yahoo Health search engine. Yahoo returned a three-column page. The left column actually sorted the types of hits. You could choose to see the results for types of information (27 types, including news, ask the expert, medications, symptoms and diagnosis, and many more) or topics (60 topics, including breast cancer, women’s health, cancer and chemotherapy, and so on). The middle column included the organic results, with two sponsored links at the top. Unfortunately, you couldn’t see the URLs or where the information was coming from exactly. The column on the right, of course, was entirely for sponsored results.

A search for BRCA testing turned up remarkably specific results. While Google returned 981,000 results, Yahoo Health returned only 48. I noticed that there was also a link labeled “About this page…” that explained the various sections of the page and what they mean (sponsored results, category sponsors, web results, etc.). That’s useful for someone feeling a little overwhelmed – as anyone worried about their health or the health of a loved one and searching for information might feel.

Searching for ACL on Yahoo Health turned up 64 results. One of the topics on the left was rather puzzling, though: what does that ligament have to do with addiction? Three articles supposedly fit that topic and all seemed to deal with exercise. The first and third links were dead; the page for the second link, I noticed, mentioned “rehab” and “rehabilitation” a lot, but did not mention addiction itself. I can only guess that it was misclassified because of its use of the other two terms.

Finally, I used MSN’s resource. The site displayed the link to Health & Fitness prominently near the top, along with about 30 others. The portal-like site included a link labeled “Breast Cancer Awareness.” As with Yahoo, it took me to a breast cancer portal with an assortment of relevant articles, news items, message boards, and other information. When you encounter these kinds of portals, it’s very easy to spend far more time on them than you intended, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

A search of MSN’s Health & Fitness site for breast cancer returns the now-familiar two sponsored links at the top and a column of sponsored links on the right. Above the sponsored links on the right, though, is a list of related searches containing the phrase “breast cancer.” Unlike Yahoo, MSN’s search makes it clear where you’re going for each site.

So how does MSN Health & Fitness do for “BRCA testing”? Once again, there are two sponsored links at the top; on the right, before the ads, MSN lists the related search “BRCA Genetic Testing.” Clicking on that link delivers organic results without the ads at the top. The results were similar, but not identical. Going back to my original BRCA testing query, I noticed two links at the top sitting next to the number of results returned (“Page 1 of 42,279 results”): Options and Advanced. Clicking on options let me adjust some of the settings in ways that are pretty standard for a search engine, and one that I hadn’t expected: location. Mine was set to Atlanta, Georgia, for some reason, so I adjusted it for my actual location. In this case, it didn’t change my results.

The Advanced link popped up a window that provided a variety of options. I could set my search parameters more precisely as to what search terms must (or must not) be included, find or exclude web pages from particular sites or domains, find web pages that link to specific URLs, find web pages from specific countries or regions, and find web pages written in a specific language.

There was one last factor I could include, which bears a little explaining. It’s called results ranking. MSN shows you three bars with sliders on them. By default, they’re all set to the middle. The first bar lets you decide whether you want to see results that are more static or that have been updated more recently. The second bar lets you weight your results toward more or less popular sites. The third bar lets you slide anywhere between an “approximate match” and an “exact match.” The scales go numerically from one to 100. I left the middle indicator the same, but adjusted the others to “more recent” and “exact match.” This not only brought about a serious reordering of my results, but also changed the sponsored links.

Okay, so what about the search on ACL? Well, that’s where I discovered that MSN Health & Fitness is almost just a gloss over Microsoft’s regular search engine. It returned two sponsored links at the top which I honestly couldn’t tell whether they were relevant; the natural results were no more relevant than Google’s. On the other hand, in the column to the right under related searches, it offered eight options, of which six were relevant. Clicking on any of those not only turned up relevant organic results, but also brought up even more relevant related searches as options on the right.

The three major search engines seem to have delivered good results for what is, admittedly, probably not the most taxing query I could have given them. The performance for the more specific queries varied a little more, however. So how can the specialized search engines improve on this? You don’t know what you’re missing until you try it, so in the next part we’ll take a look at the other options.

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