Specialized Search Engines: Finding the Right Niche

Call them vertical, or niche, or even “Google killers.” But whatever you call them, there are hundreds of search engines out there other than the Big Three (or Big Five if you count AOL and Ask). In this article I’ll take a look at this wide open field, and discuss why you might want to broaden your searching (and perhaps advertising) horizons past Google.

I’ve regularly reviewed alternative search engines here on SEO Chat. I consider it one of the perks of this job, because every time you review a new search engine, you’re looking at a different perspective on what is important and how to sort the Internet. Often the creators of these new search engines consciously take an approach that is different from Google’s. “Different” doesn’t necessarily mean “better overall,” but it can mean “better for certain situations.”

To coin an analogy, think of Google as the biggest department store in the world (I know, that’s either Wal-Mart or Amazon, but bear with me). For most of your needs, you’ll probably be able to find the right item at that department store. But say your portly Aunt Edna just fell and did something nasty to her knee, for which she now needs a custom-built brace. You wouldn’t go to the department store for that; you’d go to a hospital, which would be able to refer to you to the right place to have that made.

By the same token, if you’re looking for the most up-to-date medical information on a particular condition, you might go to Google if it’s a well-known and much-discussed condition such as breast cancer, but not if it’s something that’s more rare and unusual. For that, you’d be wise to consider some of the vertical search engines that explicitly cover the health and medical field. I’ve reviewed several of those for SEO Chat.

The general point is that it is good to have options. You can try to be all things to all people, but if you do, it’s almost inevitable that you will fall short in some areas. That’s where alternative search engines come in. In the rest of this article, I’m going to look at ways you can find out about the alternative search engines, what kinds of things they cover, and why you might want to check them out — not just as a searcher, but as someone who wants to get your web sites in front of people.

Ironically — or perhaps appropriately — the quickest way to find out about alternative search engines is to search on that phrase in Google. The first site that comes up is Search Engine Watch, a regular stop for anyone who does SEO. After all, they’ve been covering the field since 1996. If you visit this page on the site, it takes you to a list of links. These links take you to specific categories of search engines, such as news search engines, shopping search engines, multimedia search engines, kids’ search engines, specialty-related search engines, and more. If you have a fascination with knowledge in general and a few specific areas in particular, you might want to line up a number of pointed queries, get comfortable with this site, and spend a day or two poking around. Depending on how lucky you’ve been finding that kind of information on Google, you just might find some new favorites.

Another web site worth checking is www.altsearchengines.com. The entire site is devoted to coverage of alternative search engines, though it does cover the majors as well. You can subscribe to the site via email or RSS feed. While the site definitely has the feel of a professional blog (which is what it is, essentially), it’s better organized, making it somewhat easier to find things. There are colorful tabs labeled “alts,” “majors,” “updates,” “in beta,” “newcomers,” “news” and “verticals” to help you navigate. There are also ads from alternative search engines on the site. Each month, they compile a list of the top 100 alternative search engines; it seems to have turned into a mission for Charles Knight, the man doing the compiling. Here’s a link to the list for April 2007.

Yet another site to check is About.com. Of course, it’s an alternative search engine itself these days. It has a guide, Wendy Boswell, for the Web Search topic. One of the areas she covers is search engines. The link I gave will take you to articles that review and discuss the alternatives. She even has an article titled “Web Search 101,” which gives you answers to frequently asked questions about search and helps you zoom in on the kind of search engine you want based on your needs.

When search engines began convincing businesses to advertise with them, they had a hard-to-beat pitch. Most other forms of advertising interrupted the user’s experience. With radio, TV, newspapers, and magazines, users were there for the content, not the ads. So right away you’d start off annoying your potential customer, who just wants to get back to enjoying the content.

Search is different. The searcher is actively looking for something related to what the advertiser is selling. As long as the ad is relevant to the key word, it’s not quite the same kind of interruption. Instead of being annoyed, the searcher is given another piece of information to consider, along with the other information for which he or she was already looking.

Niche search engines take this to the next level. If you’re advertising on a niche search engine, you’re reaching a market that you probably couldn’t reach as easily with Google or Yahoo or the other major search engines. Since niche search engines cater to specific needs, if you have a product or service that is aimed at filling the same needs, you might want to consider this advertising venue.

You might find yourself with a smaller pool of prospects, but since your ad is appearing in an area that affords it even higher relevance than Google, you could see a much better conversion rate. Chris Copeland, director of search at online advertising company The Digital Edge, notes that one of its retail clients gets 17 percent of all its search traffic from smaller search engines.

This will matter more as time goes on and the niche search engines continue to do an excellent job of branding themselves. There are already some that stand out in one’s mind: Shopzilla for shopping, for example, or YellowPages.com for businesses. If you feel you’ve already done all you can with the major search engines, or you seem to have hit a plateau in your search engine marketing, you might take another look at niche and vertical search engines that cater to your market.

The potential advantages of a vertical or niche approach haven’t escaped the notice of Microsoft. A monopoly player on the desktop, the software giant places a distant third in the search engine field. In May, less than nine percent of all searches by U.S. web surfers went through Microsoft’s search engine, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. In the same period, Google snagged more than 50 percent of the same market.

The fact of the matter is that Microsoft’s share of the search market has been declining, and if it hopes to become more competitive, it’s going to have to think differently. The company seems to realize it too, judging from its recent purchases. For example, in February Microsoft bought MotionBridge, a provider of search technology for mobile phones. A month or two later it grabbed Medstory, a startup specializing in health care information. About the same time it also bought TellMe Networks, a leader in voice recognition technology. When I wrote about that particular acquisition for Microsoft, I reflected that it could give the software giant an edge in the mobile search market.

When you add those acquisitions to Microsoft’s home-grown efforts to build niche search engines focusing on images, news, and other content, the picture that emerges is of a competitor desperately looking for chinks in their opponent’s armor. Still, desperation aside, the move is sensible. “There’s a lot of opportunity in domain-specific areas,” notes Microsoft  Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie.

A recent Business Week article speculated that Microsoft has deep enough pockets to mine many niches. The article suggested that the software giant might look into buying search engines in such vertical markets as job openings, comparison shopping, classified advertising, travel information, and more.

Microsoft might be one of the biggest players in this fight, but it’s not the only one. The biggest prize might still go to Google. That doesn’t mean alternative search engines are going to lose; the pie could grow to be big enough for everyone. It all comes down to which slice and what kind of pie you want. And if you’re one of those people who’d rather have cherry pie from time to time instead of a steady diet of apple, then you already know why having so many niche search engines is a good thing: it’s always good to have options.

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