Jeff DeBalko, who heads the Reed Business Interactive division as CIO of Reed Business Information U.S., articulates this philosophy: "Our priorities focus on three specific objectives. The first is to leverage every aspect of our business?technical, editorial and marketing?to enrich our products so that they are highly relevant to the search engines and easily found.
"The second is to give our users who arrive from search engines a rich content experience so that they stay with us for a few more page views. The third is to provide great search technology that will return highly targeted and relevant search results, and to create compelling new products based on this technology."
DeBalko added that any industry-specific search products developed at Reed will focus on relevance. "If a user doesn't get more relevant results from our products than from Google, nothing else we do in search matters," he said.
Bill Furlong was a pioneer in vertical search in 2004 when he founded SearchChannel, a company that set out to build vertical search sites for b-to-b media companies. In addition to early entries such as DentalProducts.net (Advanstar), his company has recently launched vertical search sites for consumer electronics (InsideCE.com) and "green" landscaping professionals (greenseeker.com).
While building search engines is still part of his business, Furlong said, "We've recently been emphasizing the services side of our business more." Whether a publisher uses Google, Yahoo! or any other search engine technology provider to power vertical search, there is still a human knowledge component?the specialty of the b-to-b media?that technology can't replace, he said.
"We have editorially trained people who can provide that service," Furlong said, along with experts in search engine optimization, audience acquisition, search engine marketing and other aspects of search strategy that can't be automated.
Maurice Bakley, VP-Internet publishing at PostNewsweek Tech Media, said his company never pursued vertical search as a business on its own. "We always thought Google would get into [vertical search]," he said. "We didn't think we could dislodge Google as a search destination for our readers, so it wasn't the best use of our resources."
Instead, Bakley has been focusing on the internal search function of PostNewsweek Tech Media's sites, which include gcn.com and washingtontechnology.com. Because search results pages don't have to be created by the editorial staff, they provide much-needed inventory at certain times of the year, when the sites are selling out.
CMP Technology is also focusing on internal search. "We work very hard to make the search experience better for people looking for information on our sites," said Peter Spande, who joined CMP's Business Technology Group as VP-online media from CNET Networks in late September.
"Our goal is to increase loyalty and usage," Spande said. "TechSearch is an engine that powers search on over 60 of our sites, and as a company we're really keyed into enterprise IT. So when we offer up results from other brands to users of one site, we build a bridge that improves usage across our sites."
Spande pointed out that there is still plenty of room for improvement in search technology as well as in the content available for searching. "You'll see a lot more innovation," he said. "There are a lot of brilliant people working on this all over the world."
Alec Dann, general manager-magazines online at Hanley Wood Business Media, agreed. "Search still doesn't work as well as people would like it to," he said. "Vertical search is a viable concept waiting for a really good business model. When someone comes up with one, everyone else will jump to copy it."
Publishers are also creating competitive offerings by combining rich data with search.
"Our strategy is to leverage our content and data with search," said Prescott Shibles, VP-online development at Prism Business Media. While search is intertwined into most Web activities, he said, "you have to have an underlying business strategy beyond search. People are starting to realize that they have to do a better job of aggregating and organizing their own content and rich data."
One example of that strategy at Prism is Source ESB, which is based on an existing database of electronics parts and manufacturers originally printed as "The Electronics Source Book." "We use search as a tool so that the user can mine that data according to a customized need," Shibles said. "This is really what we do in the b-to-b media?connect buyers and sellers."
Prism isn't the only company to see the value of applying search technology to rich data to create greater value for buyers and sellers, and the number of searchable directory-type products is growing.
"Effective search is a critical component of any online business, and the database or directory businesses are no exception," DeBalko said. "RBI has more than 20 successful online directory properties, and our investment in search is a significant factor in accelerating growth."
Cygnus Business Media last month launched electronic buyer's guides at firehouse.com and securityinfowatch.com. "Another 10 to 12 will be following across many of our markets before the end of the year," said Dave Iannone, VP-interactive. All the buyer's guides will share a directory platform developed in collaboration between Cygnus' in-house developers and a third party.
"The platform allows directorylike listings that can be enhanced with multiple featured-listing levels," Iannone said. In addition to allowing advertisers to enhance their listings with top placement and the addition of boldface or logos, the buyer's guides can display product photos, map the location of a company and provide a "contact this company" link that will launch an e-mail directly to any address the company chooses.
"We're expecting this to drive nice growth," Iannone said.