Search marketing remains the sharpest knife in the marketing drawer these days. In the midst of a global advertising slump, the big media agency ZenithOptimedia Group has forecast that U.S. search advertising spending will grow 9% in 2009, while advertising expenditures slide almost 7%.
While search remains a preferred advertising medium, the choice of search platform is fluid. Google remains the overwhelming platform of choice for search marketers, but other channels—in particular vertical search engines—may be on the rise.
“Whether vertical search is growing or not depends very much on the particular industry sector,” said Linus Gregoriadis, head of research at Econsultancy. “In some professions, such as medical, engineering and the maritime world, people are more reliant on vertical search engines to source purchases than they are on the generic search engines.”
Vertical search sites generally focus on one easily identifiable sector of an industry. There are myriad examples, including GlobalSpec (a resource for the engineering, industrial and technical communities), Maritime Answers (for the shipping industry), SearchMedica (for physicians and medical practitioners) and ThomasNet (for buyers of industrial products and services).
And the definition is flexible. Local search—offered by Google as well as several newspapers—is a growing variation. One might even categorize eBay as a shopping search engine or Kayak as a travel search site, although generally the term is restricted to the sourcing of b-to-b contacts and products within specific industry niches or interests.
Econsultancy and vertical search technology provider Convera Inc.'s “Vertical Search (B2B) Report 2009” notes that 67% of marketers say vertical search engines provide a faster way to find information, and 65% say the top results are more relevant to their needs. The online survey included the answers of 500 media and marketing professionals in October and November 2008. “Vertical search engines have a few benefits over general ones,” said Kevin Lee, chairman-CEO of search marketing agency Didit. “One is that, to some extent, they're a filter, meaning that when a user clicks through to a marketer's site, that source is already screened for appropriateness.”
Vertical search engines also may be viewed as a vertical directory within which a user searches. But, Lee added, “This is a distinction without a difference, because you can drill down to find what you want.”
The biggest advantage of a vertical engine is its focus.
“In this economy, that's just what people should be thinking about—improving their ROI by targeting their audience more precisely,” said Ben Hanna, VP-marketing with vertical search engine Business.com.
“It's the list that matters; typically you have the ability to target a much better list on a vertical search site,” Hanna said. “Google will give you the forest, but for the trees—for the buying process—the b-to-b buying sites and directories will give you the short list of vendors.”
And queries for companies or products on general search engines often lead to vertical search sites, because they often rank high on Google et al. From that standpoint, vertical search can benefit from the sheer dominance of Google, which (according to a report by search research company Hitwise last month) controls 72% of all U.S.-based search queries.
“But marketers may want to participate as advertisers in the vertical directories because it's a second bite at the apple,” Lee said. “Since it's already deemed relevant by Google, paying for an ad in a vertical search engine is a second way to get a Google click; it's like a Google click once removed.”
Vertical search may have a way to go before it gains any significant degree of advertising loyalty among marketers. First, advertising budgets would have to be consciously divided to include specific verticals as well as the major general engines. These days there's not much budget to divide.
Another barrier may be skimpy directories or technical glitches. In the Econsultancy-Convera study, 47% of respondents said the quality of search typically found on vertical search sites was only average (36%) or poor (11%), despite its targeted relevancy. It's not easy matching the search-algorithm sophistication of a Google or Yahoo, even when the niche is well-defined.
In addition, the general search engines are becoming more aggressive with behavioral-target advertising. This may tend to make general searches much more precise—more “vertical”—based on the user's own profile and online actions.
“But I do think vertical search has a bright future,” said Gregoriadis. When done well technically, and used as an industry resource for in-the-know business buyers, he said: “They have an opportunity to improve the searcher's experience by adding value and returning better results.”