Thomas takes vertical approach to search

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A 114-year-old industrial media company is taking on Google-not to mention MSN and Yahoo! New York-based Thomas Publishing Co. is making a big bet that a vertical industry search engine can profit amid these wildly popular general search engines.

The company's Thomas Industrial Network last month launched, a site that merges information from Thomas Register and Thomas Regional products to create an extensive online database of 650,000 industrial manufacturers, distributors and service providers. While the online merging of Thomas Register and Thomas Regional is, in and of itself, news, what's truly noteworthy is the new site's vertical search capabilities.

"Honestly, I think it's a very good move," said Jeffrey Dearth, partner at media investment bank DeSilva & Phillips.

In the wake of Google's massive initial public offering, vertical search has been attracting attention in the media and advertising community. GlobalSpec, a site that reaches engineers, launched earlier this year what it calls the Engineering Web, which offers Internet search in a limited universe of Web sites to help engineers design and specify products. In the b-to-b media realm, a new company called SearchChannel is marketing vertical search capabilities for b-to-b publishers in the markets they serve.

Linking buyers and sellers

ThomasNet is designed to do what the Thomas Register of American Manufacturers and the Thomas Regional Industrial Buying Guides have always done. "Bringing buyers and sellers together, and how we've done that has evolved," said Linda Rigano, a Thomas Industrial Network spokeswoman.

The company still prints its 33-volume Thomas Register, but it was among the leaders in b-to-b publishing in bringing the massive publication first to CD-Rom and then to the Web. The new site and its vertical search engine are designed to help industrial buyers and purchasing agents search for the industrial products they need on the Internet.

"General search engines are not designed to deliver the results that are specific to the needs of the industrial buyer," Rigano said.

The ThomasNet search engine is designed to delve deeper into its advertisers' Web sites than other search engines tend to do. The search interface on the ThomasNet home page asks a user to enter terms in three categories: "Search for," "A product/service or company" and "Where?"

"It's a nice, simple interface," said Gary Stein, a senior analyst with Jupiter Research.

ThomasNet uses a new technology called FAST AdVisor, developed by Oslo, Norway-based Fast Search & Transfer. What FAST AdVisor does is aggregate information from "structured and unstructured" data sources. Unstructured data sources include advertiser, third-party and Web content. The technology is a good fit for Thomas, because the information in the publication is almost exclusively provided by advertisers and includes Web sites, CAD drawings and catalogs.

"Now, the big challenge is getting their name out," Stein said.

With the print Thomas Register still reaching hundreds of thousands of users, name recognition might not be a problem. The marketing challenge will likely be getting industrial buyers searching for new suppliers on the Internet to use ThomasNet instead of Google. To build traffic, ThomasNet is using a novel approach: a sweepstakes on its Web site to give away a custom chopper from Orange County Choppers of reality TV fame.

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