Jay Bhatti, co-founder of Spock.com in Redwood City, Calif., was recently interviewed by Ziff Davis Enterprise Senior Technology Editor Wayne Rash. The topic was vertical search engines—a specialized means of searching that focuses on one topic as opposed to a general search engine such as Google that focuses on everything.
Well, one of the things that we see vertical search doing really well is being very specific on understanding what people are looking for. A good example is when you go to Google and search for something, you’re going to get a very general result. However, when you’re looking for something very specific, like a company might be saying, “Hey, I need to book travel for my employees,” they might go to a site like Kayak. Or they might be like, “I need to find products for my company or my office,” and they might go to a site like Tofind.com. Or a company’s like, “I need to hire employees. I need to look for candidates. I need to do some businessdevelopment deals,” [and] they go to a site like Spock.com. Vertical search, I think, really does a good job of helping companies narrow in on the specific thing that they want to take action on at that point. One thing that semantic search engines do really well is that idea of providing utility, but also very transactional utility because with a lot of vertical search, you’re trying to do something, but you’re trying to get a transaction done. So whether it’s purchasing an airline ticket, buying a product or reaching out and being able to communicate with someone, you’re doing something that’s very transactional, but also at the same time very utilitarian. Whereas a general search engine like a Google or a Yahoo provides a very [high] utility value, but maybe not a transactional value for a business.
How does a company go about finding a vertical search engine that’s going to meet their specific requirements?
First and foremost, it’s kind of like, what are your specific needs? It’s pretty easy when you’re thinking travel. [There are] a lot of vertical search engines about travel, and you could go about and find some. I think the best way to find them is to just go on a general search engine like Google and type in “travel,” or “cheap tickets” or something like that. And it’ll say, “Hey, these three search engines are the best.” Or go to Google and type in product search, or people search or something of that equation, and you will quickly find what semantic search engines are the highest-ranked for those types of queries that you’re looking for. So actually the best way to find a vertical search is really to use a general search engine and type in the type of query that you’re looking for.
Yeah, exactly. You won’t find search results of the search engine that you’re looking for, but you’ll find the search engine itself. So if a lot of people, for example, are talking about Spock and saying Spock is the people search engine on the Web, and there are a lot of blog posts about it, and a lot of blog articles, a lot of links to Spock.com, Google’s going to capture that. So when you then eventually go to Google and type in people search, or people records, or something like that, the first link or the first couple of links might be Spock.com. Same thing with products, or the same thing with travel search, same thing with any other type of vertical search that you might be doing.
So if I needed to rent office space I could go to Google and look for office space rentals and I would find search engines that specialized in rentals?
Exactly. You might find a search engine like Rent.com. I don’t qualify them as search engines; they’re more directory. But then you will quickly find search engines out there that have compiled aggregate information across the Web on just office space, for example. It shouldn’t take you too long to do that using a general search engine.
What is the benefit to me as a business owner of using such specialized vertical search engines?
I think they do a really good job of getting the details that you’re looking for. I’ll give you two examples that are really valid. For example, if I’m doing a people search … say I’m hiring someone and I want to look up someone on the Web, which is a very common thing that people do now, or I might be doing business with someone and I want to look them up on the Web, I type their name in on a general search engine and I might get 100 results back. And some of them might be some other person with the same name. So I get a mediocre result on a general search engine. Whereas if I go to a specific vertical search, I’ll type in a person’s name, and I’ll be like, “All right, I’ve got 10 results here, but those 10 results are filtered by a unique person.” And it can be like, “Hey, yep, that’s the person I’m looking for, and here are the 10 most relevant links to that person that exist on the Web.” So you get a very good result without having to do a lot of the investigation work. Same thing with travel. I might go to a vertical travel site and say, “Search across the entire Internet and find me the best travel from New York to L.A.” They’ll get you a very specific result back and save you a lot of the effort that you would normally do by yourself. They’ll do the work for you and you get the top specific results that you’re looking for. Without these search engines existing, for people search you’d have to say, “OK, is this John Smith or is that John Smith? Are they the same person? I can’t tell.” Or you’d be like, “Hey, I have to go to Expedia, I have to go to Orbitz.” Or they go to, you know, six other Web sites and then manually type in stuff and search for the right deal and still might not get every site that offers the best deal out there. Vertical searches really help you take a lot of the work off your shoulders and make sure that you have a comprehensive experience.
I think one of the most important things, and one of the things we found with our company especially, is that people read the “about” page a lot. And what happens is that people will always e-mail us saying, you know, “Are the results here algorithmic? Are they pure, or are you artificially inflating some results over others because people are paying for them?” And I think a lot of these vertical search engines have taken the cue from Google. And Google said, “The main results that we show are purely algorithmic. There’s no bias in there. It’s completely based on computers, programs and algorithms that we created.” So people have a lot of confidence that when they type something in Google that the first couple of results are actually the most relevant on the Web. And a lot of other vertical search engines have taken that same cue and said, “That’s what the consumer wants. They want to see relevant results that are unbiased.” And a lot of vertical search engine sites do say, “We do not play favorites. Our goal is to aggregate information and to make it very easy for you to digest and make sure that you have a comprehensive experience.” And then you can decide what place you want to go to do your specific thing on that vertical engine, whether it’s travel, looking for people or a product search.