Optimizing for Vertical Search : The Opportunities in Vertical Search

1/12/2011 11:39:24 AM
Vertical search engines focus on specific niches of web content, including images, videos, news, travel, and people. Such engines exist to provide value to their user base in ways that go beyond what traditional web search engines provide.

One area where vertical search engines can excel in comparison to their more general web search counterparts is in providing more relevant results in their specific category. They may accomplish this by any number of means, including making assumptions about user intent based on their vertical nature (an option that full web search engines do not normally have), specialized crawls, more human review, and the ability to leverage specialized databases of information (potentially including databases not available online).

There is a lot of opportunity in vertical search. SEO professionals need to seriously consider what potential benefits vertical search areas can provide to their websites. Of course, there are significant differences in how you optimize for vertical search engines.

The Opportunities in Vertical Search

Vertical search has been around for almost as long as the major search engines have been in existence. Some of the first vertical search engines were for image search, news group search, and news search, but many other vertical search properties have emerged since then, both from the major search engines and from third parties.

This article will focus on strategies for optimizing your website for the vertical search offerings from Google, Yahoo!, and Bing. We will also spend some time on YouTube, which in January 2009 became the second largest search engine on the Web. First we will look at the data for how vertical search volume compares to regular web search. The data in Table 1 comes from Hitwise, and shows the top 20 Google domains as of May 2006, which is one year before the advent of Universal Search.

Table 1. Most popular Google properties, May 2006
2Google Image Search9.54%
3Google Mail5.51%
4Google News1.49%
5Google Maps0.82%
7Google Video Search0.46%
8Google Groups0.43%
9Google Scholar0.27%
10Google Book Search0.25%
11Google Earth0.22%
12Google Desktop Search0.18%
13Google Directory0.10%
14Google Answers0.09%
15Google AdWords0.07%
16Google Local0.05%
17Google Finance0.03%
18Google Calendar0.01%
19Google Talk0.01%
20Google Labs0.01%

In May 2006, image search comprised almost 10% of Google search volume. Pair this with the knowledge that a smaller number of people on the Web optimize their sites properly for image search (or other vertical search engines) and you can see how paying attention to vertical search can pay tremendous dividends.

Of course, just getting the traffic is not enough. You also need to be able to use that traffic. If someone is coming to your site just to steal your image, for example, this traffic is likely not of value to you. So, although a lot of traffic may be available, you should not ignore the importance of determining how to engage users with your site. For instance, you could serve up some custom content for visitors from an image search engine to highlight other areas on your site that might be of interest, or embed logos/references into your images so that they carry branding value as they get “stolen” and republished on and off the Web.

1. Universal Search and Blended Search

In May 2007, Google announced Universal Search, which integrated vertical search results into main web results.

Thinking of it another way, Google’s web results used to be a kind of vertical search engine itself, one focused specifically on web pages (and not images, videos, news, blogs, etc.). With the advent of Universal Search, Google changed the web page search engine into a search engine for any type of online content. Figure 1 shows some examples of Universal Search results, starting with a Google search on iphone.

Figure 1. Search results for “iphone”

Notice the video results (labeled “Video results for iphone”) and the news results (labeled “News results for iphone”). This is vertical search being incorporated right into traditional web search results. Figure 2 shows the results for a search on i have a dream.

Figure 2. Search results for “i have a dream”

Right there in the web search results, you can click on a video and watch the famous Martin Luther King, Jr., speech. You can see another example of an embedded video by searching on one small step for man as well.

The other search engines (Yahoo!, Microsoft, and Ask) moved very quickly to follow suit. As a result, the industry uses the generic term Blended Search for this notion of including vertical search data in web results.

2. The Opportunity Unleashed

As we noted at the beginning of this article, the opportunity in vertical search was significant before the advent of Universal Search and Blended Search. However, that opportunity was not fully realized because many (in fact, most) users were not even aware of the vertical search properties. With the expansion of Blended Search, the opportunities for vertical search have soared.

However, the actual search volume for has dropped a bit, as shown in Table 2, which lists data from Hitwise for February 2009.

Table 2. Most popular Google properties, February 2009
4Google Images5.76%
5Google Maps2.08%
6Google News1.38%
7Google Video0.54%
9Google Calendar0.43%
10Google Groups0.38%
11Google Book Search0.31%
12Google Docs & Spreadsheets0.26%
13Google Finance0.23%
14Google Earth0.20%
16Google Scholar0.08%
17Google Pack0.07%
18Picasa by Google0.04%
19Google Answers0.04%
20Google Checkout0.04%
21Google Chrome0.03%
22Google AdWords0.03%
23Google Code0.02%
25Google Desktop Search0.02%
26Google Directory0.01%
27Google Base0.01%
28Google Talk0.01%
29Google Groups 2 Beta0.00%
30Google Labs0.00%
31Google Web Accelerator0.00%
33Google Moon0.00%
34Google Catalogs0.00%

This drop is most likely driven by the fact that image results get returned within regular web search, and savvy searchers are entering specific queries that append leading words such as photos, images, and pictures to their search phrases when that is what they want.

For site owners, this means new opportunities to gain visibility in the SERPs. By adding a blog, releasing online press releases to authoritative wire services, uploading video to sites such as YouTube, and adding a Google Local listing, businesses increase the chances of having search result listings that may directly or indirectly drive traffic to their sites.

It also means site owners must think beyond the boundaries of their own websites. Many of these vertical opportunities come from one-time engagements or small additional efforts to maximize the potential of activities that are already being performed.

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