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Doing a Vertical Search - InternetNews.
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Doing a Vertical Search

SAN JOSE -- The major search engines don't have the market locked down by any means, if you can believe the buzz at Search Engine Strategies, a conference taking place this week in San Jose.

Blogs and RSS feeds are growing as sources of information, and feeds deliver information to users without the need to go to a Web site or search engine. Meanwhile, vertical search engines aim to help narrow searches.

Gary Price, news editor for Search Engine Watch, said that, as the indices of the major search engines grow to monstrous proportions, vertical search services can help users find what they need.

"The larger the database, the more difficult it is getting relevant results unless you do very sophisticated search," Price said. But most searchers still type only a word or two into that query box. "Vertical search engines have focused tools and a much smaller universe to crawl."

Two examples launched this week.

On Monday, LookSmart unveiled a vertical cluster of search sites under the LookSmart Education umbrella. They include vertical sites on intellectual trends, science and Zinkle for kids. LookSmart offers pay-per-click advertising, as well as banners, rich media placements and other ad units for the content.

On Tuesday, KnowledgeStorm launched KnowIT, a specialized search engine for business and technology professionals. The service uses proprietary algorithms and focused Web crawls confined domains related to technology to create its index.

Marketers are taking note, according to Jupiter Research (which is owned by the same corporation that owns internetnews.com).

Marketers are putting their paid listings dollars toward several categories, including retail, which took 32 percent of the dollars spent on paid listings; financial services, which garnered 21 percent; and media and entertainment, reaping 16 percent of marketing dollars. Jupiter's numbers refer to sponsored links that usually appear above natural search results.

Vertical search engines often include "deep Web" information, such as documents in specialized databases. For example, GlobalSpec combines specialized databases with a specialized crawl of the wider Web to turn up engineering information.

"The challenge for vertical search engines is to first let people know they're out there in a world where so much attention is put on one or two companies," Price said.

Topix.net has gotten attention for its categorized news feed service: In March, traditional news giants Gannett, Knight Ridder and Tribune Company jointly took a 75 percent stake in the company.

Rich Skrenta, Topix.net CEO, said traffic has grown steadily, with 3.1 million unique visitors in June and 3.6 million in July. He said that while the major search engines have indexed most of the Web, it can be hard for users to figure out what keywords will get them the content they want.

"Say you want to stay abreast of what's going on around your house, just within a four block radius," he said. "In theory, this information is all indexed, but what keywords would you type in to find any event in the last 24 hours near your house?"

Topix.net's software analyzes news stories and Web content to determine, for example, whether a story mentioning Janet Jackson is entertainment-oriented or about FCC regulation of broadcasters and puts it in the appropriate category.

This type of content verticalization improves advertising results, too, Skrenta said. Topix.net displays contextual ads from Google AdSense on stories using its categorization software to improve the targeting so that a news feed about Janet Jackson might show an ad for her new CD, while a story mentioning the singer in an FCC-related feed might show an ad for an FCC compliance consultant.

"Getting that right editorially improved our whole product," Skrenta said. "The whole page just looks better, people clicked more, and advertisers made more money."

Skrenka called the business of indexing new content on the Web "a Google-sized opportunity."

Topix.net delivers its content to users however they want it: to mobile devices, via e-mail, on the company's Web site, through distribution partners and via RSS feeds.

In addition to Web search, specialized blog and RSS search are growing in importance as the number of blogs and feeds grows.

"Blogs are becoming engrained in American Internet life. It's content we'll have to contend with in the long run," said Amanda Watlington, principal of Searching for Profit, a search-marketing consultancy. She told the audience that while blogs are simply Web content with enhanced immediacy and community, RSS is a real game-changer.

"RSS gives us a [customer relationship management] application, a way to connect to customers in a unique way," she said. She advised marketers to use feeds for security alerts, new product introductions, affiliate relations and corporate communications.