Searching for Alternatives

It was a cold night in Pennsylvania when Leila Crooks was on Digg.com, the community-based popularity site, and came across a story about a "slanket" – a fleece blanket with sleeves that offers the freedom of arm movement so people can play video games or surf computers while snuggling under a blanket.

Crooks was intrigued, bought one, loved it and sent the link to three of her friends who all bought them. At $50 a pop, the maker of the Slanket was benefiting from Digg. The number of sites for finding information online – that are alternatives to search engines – is growing and the traffic to them is increasing. People go to them for different reasons: to find experts who can provide the best possible information, to have material presented in a different way, to see what other users value as important and to find information they know will be relevant to them specifically.

The Slanket example illustrates the difference between search (or "recovery") and discovery. Search (or recovery) is when you are looking for something specific – a confirmation of information that you know already exists, such as information about the governor of New Jersey or a recipe for meatloaf. Discovery is when you find something you were previously unaware of, weren’t specifically looking for or didn’t know that you’d have an interest in. It’s akin to reading additional stories in the newspaper because of the proximity to the article you wanted to read.

Amanda Watlington, founder of Searching for Profit, says social media sites like Del.icio.us or Reddit.com are organized to present information in different ways, which can appeal to people "depending on how their brains work." Users go to the Most Popular section of these sites and check out what others deem to be interesting.

Internet marketer Carsten Cumbrowski says he passes time on StumbleUpon.com, a browsing engine, to find sites that other online marketers find useful as well as to find sites that entertain him. He says it has a good filtering system – "if I say I don’t like something, I never get anything similar again."

Online marketers that want to leverage StumbleUpon can try its advertising system, which includes the link of the advertiser’s website in the regular StumbleUpon rotation. When a sponsored site is shown, a green button on the toolbar appears. However, some advertisers who have placed requests to get visitors in their category have received notices from StumbleUpon that there are not a sufficient number of people to view the ad in the category selected. Skeptics wonder if this is because StumbleUpon does not want to deal with a low ad spend or if they are overstating their traffic numbers.

Cutting Through the Clutter

As users become savvier in locating information, they realize that search engines are heavily monetized and loaded with nearly as many marketing messages as sought-after information, and they seek out alternatives, according to Sam Harrelson, general manager of the East Coast U.S., for Clicks2Customers.

Others agree that "less noise" and the struggle to find relevant information on search engines often lead people to alternative sites.

For example, if users are looking for tax help, they might go to Digg and read an article like "five ways to get your taxes done" rather than entering "tax help" into a search engine, which yields promotional sites about tax services, according to Chris Winfield, president of 10e20, an Internet marketing company.

Users often go to review or opinion sites to find information to complement what they have found on search engines. Winfield says he will search Google for a dentist in New York to get some names and then go to Yelp.com to look at their reviews. Searching for Profit’s Watlington says she searches for hotels in New York and then goes to TripAdvisor.com for the reviews.

Tim Mayer, vice president of product management of search at Yahoo, explains that when users don’t find the answers they want on search engines, they can ask a question on Answers.com. The site includes 4 million answers from publishers, original content created by its editorial team, community-contributed articles from Wikipedia and answers from WikiAnswers.com.

WikiAnswers is collaboratively written by volunteers "in the spirit of growing information for the public good," according to its website. For contributions that users find to be worthwhile, users vote with Trustpoints, which are indicators of how trusted the last contributor is as a member of the WikiAnswers community (as opposed to a measurement of how much you can trust the actual answer to a question). Trusting a user’s reputation is vital to not only WikiAnswers but to all social sites where users provide information or indicate the value of information (such as through tagging, bookmarking or ranking).

Just like in off-line world, the value put on information depends on who is giving it, and for this reason, users’ profiles can be weighty and influential. If you are reading an article about JavaScript on Del.icio.us, you look to see what other articles a user has saved – it gives you an understanding of that person’s knowledge base. It is similar to looking at someone’s book or record collection – it lends credibility and perspective.

Trust Me

Techmeme.com is one of online marketing expert Jim Kukral’s favorite sites because it decides what news is important as opposed to a site that simply aggregates feeds. "Techmeme saves me time. There is no need to go to a ton of blogs to figure out what is going on. That’s power to me," he says.

Techmeme works differently than other news sites. GoogleNews, a news aggregator site, uses its own software to determine what stories to display, but the sources are selected by a team of editors. Similarly, SFGate.com, the online version of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, also features stories decided on by editors. Techmeme creator Gabe Rivera explains that Techmeme uses a proprietary algorithm, which changes frequently, to analyze posts to determine what Web pages are being discussed or cited most often on the Web.

Blogger Robert Scoble (www.Scobleizer.com) explains that Rivera started by selecting 1,000 of the world’s top tech bloggers, put them in his server, studied their linking behavior and created a "fabric" that now includes thousands of blogs and websites. When Apple’s iPhone came out, high-profile bloggers in the fabric such as Michael Arrington (www.TechCrunch.com), Guy Kawasaki (http://blog.guykawasaki.com) and Scoble were all blogging about the new device. Because of this, the iPhone headline stayed up on Techmeme almost 24 hours a day over the summer. Scoble says he believes that information from a site like Techmeme is more valuable than information from Google because it’s more SEO-resistant – it is much more difficult for its links to be bought. For these top bloggers to link to each other, they must trust each other. "If I trust Arrington and he trusts Kawasaki and he trusts Joe Smith, then I am going to infer that I trust Joe Smith because my chain has trusted him. It would be very hard for a search engine optimizer to break into this chain," he says.

Dana Todd, president emeritus of SEMPO and SiteLab co-founder, says that she thinks it’s rather limited thinking to assume that all SEO is harmful and that SEO is the only market manipulation tactic on the Internet. "In any market, there are marketers – and they do exactly what marketers do. They attempt to find hype-holes in the system and exploit them." She notes that it took about 15 minutes for users of Digg to start manipulating the results. The findings of a September study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) warn that just because a news story is popular at a website (or within a certain community) does not mean that it is the most "important" story.

The PEJ study compared the headlines of user-driven news sites (including Digg and Reddit), and Yahoo News, which offers an editor-based news page and three lists of user-ranked news (most recommended, most viewed and most emailed), and compared these with the news agenda found in mainstream news outlets.

The study illustrates how the news looks different when audience members pick what story they want to read or recommend, as opposed to when a professional journalist makes the selection. The study found that the most popular stories on user-driven news are more fleeting and often draw on a controversial list of sources and reflect the interests of the participants in the community – stories on Digg and Del.icio.us tend to be more about technology, which is why they are popular among online marketers.

User-driven news isn’t new – in October the site Slashdot celebrated its 10-year anniversary as a site where users could scrutinize science, science fiction and technology- related news. It is credited for being one of the first sites to provide forum-style comments alongside user-submitted news stories. Just like Del.icio.us, you wouldn’t go to Slashdot to find out information on the latest U.S. billion-dollar defense policy bill.

In a post on his blog, Gaping Void, Web 2.0 writer/cartoonist Hugh MacLeod posits that if he were looking for a Vietnamese restaurant in Phoenix, he could Google "Vietnamese restaurant Phoenix" and possibly end up at a bad restaurant. Or as a blogger with a good-sized audience, he can ask about his dinner plans on Twitter or Facebook.com and get a couple of good recommendations within minutes. "Because I know these folks, or at least, they know me " there’s a certain amount of trust and bonhomie that comes with the recommendation," says MacLeod.

Social networking site Facebook has received lots of buzz and high financial valuation because of the "social graph" – a reference to graph theory that models the connections between things. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook is not a social network but a tool that facilitates the information flow between users and their connections. It is the ability for users to get more out of their connections that people find compelling.

The Power of the People

According to Scoble, Facebook, Techmeme and Mahalo – a human-powered search engine that creates comprehensive and spam-free results for the most popular search terms – will kill Google in the next four years because users will get their information from these types of sites where trust is more than what algorithmic search results provide.

In October, Facebook added Facebook Flyers, which offers two different advertising options to the social network. Flyers Basic enables marketers to run ads on a $2 CPM with targeting based on age, gender and network. Flyers Pro lets marketers use pay per click with a minimum of 1 cent per click. As with other PPC ad buys, a higher max price per click increases the chance your ad will be shown. Online expert Kukral says Facebook Flyers "is basically Google AdWords within Facebook." He says that as an online marketer in Cleveland, this gives him the ability to do things like drill down to specific demographics with Facebook and target those users for a local "event."

"I can create an event in Facebook and then look at all the people on Facebook that are in the area and maybe have certain political or religious beliefs [based on their Facebook profiles] and then invite them to participate in an offer or event," Kukral says. "That is powerful and it could be the next big thing."

Part of trusting someone’s advice or being receptive to marketing messages is awareness of users’ tastes. David Rodnitzky, vice president of advertising at Mercantila – a collection of hundreds of online specialty stores selling to U.S. and Canadian consumers – says StumbleUpon and movie site Flixster.com are popular because they leverage collaborative filtering.

Here’s an example of how collaborative filtering works, according to Rodnitzky: Two users rate 200 movies on Flixster, and 90 percent of the time the ratings of the same movie are consistent (user A gives "Star Wars" a 10, user B gives it a 10). So if user A wants to see a Chinese-language movie but has never seen one before, and user B has seen five of them, the odds are good that whichever Chinese-language movie user B ranked a 10 will also be a movie that user A likes. When user B types in "best Chinese movies," the results are tailored to his specific likes and dislikes.

"Over time, if a collaborative filtering engine gains enough information about an individual user, it’s possible for the results to be very powerful – and far more accurate than what you get by just doing a search on a search engine," Rodnitzky says. However, the collaborative filtering engine first needs to have enough users to make those ratings viable.

Wikipedia.com is a popular search alternative that has garnered enough users to make it worthwhile. It reached 2 million answers in the English-language version in September 2007. Since starting in 2001, more than 100,000 registered users have made at least 10 edits each to Wikipedia articles. It is in the search toolbar in the Firefox browser and the sixth-most-visited network of websites worldwide. Internet marketer Cumbrowski claims Wikipedia is exceptional because it lists references – users can find out what experts think are the best resources for a topic – which obviates the need to research a topic any further.

Specialization

Finding the best information from the most informed user base is driving the growth in specialized communities and vertical search engines. Cumbrowski says there will be more specialization. As good examples of that, he points to BUMPZee.com for the affiliate community and Danny Sullivan’s Sphinn.com community for search information.

The explosion of content available on the Internet is fueling this specialization. Although Web 2.0 has made creating connections easier, it has made searching for information more difficult than ever. Because users’ queries are usually ambiguous, Google cannot serve the needs of every user. In turn, that has brought about an increase in the number of vertical properties, which restrict the scope of a search (see sidebar, Page 46).

Stephanie Agresta, a founder of the Conversation Group, says social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter fill in the gaps. They allow individuals to tap in to different levels of networks of people to get information from someone who knows about a particular subject. Sites such as Mahalo and Squidoo.com enable users to view information through a specific user’s lens – the movement now seems to be toward a custom feed based on an individual’s friends and context, and away from algorithms.

But SEMPO’s Todd says it took only about 20 minutes for her to get bored with Facebook "because of all the ridiculous plug-ins and faux human interactions." She says that search engine optimization is not really the issue here. Google dominates that area because it caters to the very lowest common needs of users, and does so very elegantly. "It’s a tool, not a destination."

Moving forward, more of these types of sites are expected to pop up. Mixx, a new social news site – a cross between LinkedIn, Reddit and MyYahoo – is a social network that lets users find and share news based on their interests and location.

Another social network service is Ning, an online platform for creating social websites and social networks. Ning helps Web publishers create social networks around their content – more than 100,000 sites have used Ning’s tools to add their own networks. The sites range from a network of family members sharing content and photos to large networks such as Indiepublic, a social network for independent designers and artists.

Social sites are limited to certain topics, as several industries don’t have enough people using them yet and it’s tough to find any long-tail information on social sites, according to Web strategy consultant Cameron Olthuis. He expects that search engines and "alternative sites" will be completely necessary for people to continue to find information.

Search Wars

Even though Google would prefer not to be a verb, the search giant is just that and more. To Google is to search for products, maps, healthcare plans, cars for sale, images of Britney Spears, coupon sites, new mobile phones, the population of Moscow, blogs on gardening – the world really. And more so now.

As of last May, Google changed the way it serves results pages. It isn’t one of the ongoing tweakings to its famed algorithm to help you find what you are really looking for, but a much more significant change.

Search results pages are no longer sectioned off into categories for more targeted searches – its tabs for news, video, blogs and maps are still there but its main search results now pull all of those categories together into one results display. This is called Google Universal Search.

Google wants to provide more relevant search results by offering not more choices but better choices in the possible niches a user may be searching for. If you type “healthcare” into Google, you don’t just get providers of healthcare, but also blogs on healthcare and even local providers by ZIP code. Universal Search is supposed to make it easier to find what you want – a mandate that is the heart of Google’s mission.

“With universal search, we’re attempting to break down the walls that traditionally separated our various search properties and integrate the vast amounts of information available into one simple set of search results,” writes Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience of Google on the company’s blog.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin has said in the press that Universal Search is the first major revamp of the site and its underlying architecture in several years. He said the work began more than two years ago and that more than half of the company’s “search efforts” developed it. He said the changes will give people more exposure to “underutilized” Google services such as Book Search and Video Search, and that they will help raise Google’s market share. Brin finished off by saying that “our data says we not only are the best [search engine] but we’re widening the gap.”

In Google’s Shadow

The myriad of niche search engines on the Web, however, take issue with this new feature. Marketers and custom search engine companies believe this reform to the results pages will cut into their business. “There is a lot of money being thrown at the category, and so many players, they are not supportable in the long run,” says Chase Norlin, CEO of Pixsy, which hosts custom image search engines for other sites. Marketers are simply afraid that all their SEO efforts will have to change dramatically to retain their hard-won rankings, being pushed lower by popular blogs and YouTube.com videos of cats. Currently, Pixsy gets 60 percent of its traffic through Google.

“I don’t think it changes a thing for the top search marketers,” says Matt McGee, SEO manager for Marchex at SearchEngineWatch.com. “The best have already been using all these verticals to drive traffic – video optimization, local search, blogs, news and press releases, and so forth. Search marketers who’ve been sticking to the basics like on-page optimization and simple link building have some catching up to do. I’d say they already had some catching up to do even before the Universal Search announcement.”

John Tawadros, COO of iProspect, suggests marketers relax and focus on the opportunity Universal Search presents – a call to diversify your digital content to include more additional media types, adding that a truly good search strategy goes beyond just changing your ways to suit the engines. Kris Jones, CEO of PepperJam, supports that view. “I have watched advertisers double their sales volume via search by focusing on marketing initiatives outside of search. Conversely, I have seen advertisers in just about every vertical space leaving massive dollars on the table by refusing to see the big picture,” he says on his blog.

“The moral for search marketers is,” says David Berkowitz, director of emerging media at 360i, “they need to take a holistic view of search. For those who get it, this gives them an unprecedented chance to dominate entire search engine results pages and gain sizable competitive advantages. Marketers need to consider every digital asset of theirs as an opportunity to gain more visibility in Google, whether it’s an image, video, press release, store listing, blog post or anything else.”

Norlin points out that since Pixsy has a large business-to-business component, Universal Search does not largely have an impact on those current customers. In fact, there is a healthy amount of vertical search in the business-to-business space. Research firm Outsell recently stated that the business-to-business vertical search market would probably top $1 billion in revenue by 2009. Also, vertical search engines that use different “contextual crawling methods” or integrate specialized databases that are not routinely interpreted by a Web search crawler may be unaffected by Universal Search.

Finding a Niche

Wil Reynolds, associate at SEER Interactive, thinks niche search engines still have a place and are not going to be crushed by Google. “We don’t need to be the biggest SEO company out there, for example. We only need a piece of the pie. [Search companies] go out there fighting for a third of a percent and that can be profitable for them.” Mike Solomon, vice president of Search123, says that they do well because “we know who we are and what we do well. We see business that Google and Yahoo have left behind in the second-tier clients. ” We are not saying one size fits all. Google says ‘this is one size fits all and if not, too bad.'”

Image search engine sites such as Like.com, Picsearch.com and Pixsy will probably never catch Google, but they may not need to. “We don’t really compete with Google right now,” Norlin says. “Universal Search isn’t really a big deal.” He says that Google is too concerned with having a negative impact on their revenue to change results that dramatically. “They have too much to lose. That’s what happens when you are up.” He adds that an engine like Ask.com has nothing to lose and, therefore, is the most innovative in terms of universal search, Norlin believes.

Search sites such as Ask.com and Snap.com are trying to appeal to the Google masses by displaying search results in an interesting way. Ask.com has incorporated a preview in which thumbnails of the home page of a site pop up when the cursor slides across the result listing. Snap.com’s preview has a bigger pane that slides to reveal the home page without having to click through at all. Ask.com also combines search results à la Google Universal Search but presents the results in three ways – as Web links; as news items, pictures, video clips, weather reports and local results; and finally, a pane to help you refine your search. Snap CEO Tom McGovern says, “We’re not delirious in thinking that we are going to displace Google. We want to be the secondary search engine of choice.”

Since Universal Search’s launch, there has been a change in traffic patterns on the Web. According to Hitwise, Google Maps saw visits rise by 20.34 percent from May 12 to June 2. Google’s video results meant YouTube got 8.26 percent more visits in the same period and Google Video was up 1.41 percent. The Google Image Search and Google News areas actually lost traffic by 7.22 percent and 7.84 percent respectively. As of June 2007, Google still gets 52.7 percent of all searches, according to Nielsen//NetRatings.

SEER’s Reynolds believes that Universal Search is just an outgrowth of a really innovative company. “At Google,” he notes, “they really allow you to invent there. They encourage their employees to try new things. The result is Google has built an engine of ideas.” He says that Google Maps was a side project of certain Google teams and “now look at it.”

The Size vs. Substance Issue

Some experts think the one-size-fits-all model can actually help vertical search firms. Products that never ranked high can now see better traffic and buyers from placement in a Universal Search result. It means the broadening of SEO efforts instead of the daily micromanaging some businesses still do to their sites. It will force marketers to unify their different channels so that everything ranks equally. Some pundits think this was a long time in coming. Finally, the most obvious benefit to Universal Search is that with more personalized results comes better traffic for everyone. Norlin says that there are “only so many kinds of destination sites. These are the early days of Universal Search. Personalization of search and automation of that is the next trend.”

The innovative ways Ask.com and Snap.com have used Web 2.0 technology to craft interesting user experiences, experts agree, is a trend, and could chip away at Google’s business. FlickrStorm, for example, allows you to search Flickr image tags and displays thumbnails of all the pictures with that tag. You can then choose to view the full-size image at Flickr or add to your personal slideshow. FundooWeb.com presents search results from Yahoo, Yahoo News, Yahoo Answers, Yahoo Maps, Amazon and Flickr. If you search from all sources, the results are paned as collapsible headlines and a Flickr photo strip.

Other vertical search engines using Web 2.0 include Whonu, which pulls from more than 300 search sources and an interface that contextualizes what you enter. For example, type in a ZIP code and you get a set of links to maps, weather maps and even public events in Google Calendar. KwMap calls itself a “keyword map for the whole Internet.” Type in a keyword or phrase and an interface lists related key phrases with a graph that shows related terms. Clicking on a term reveals another layer of related terms. Like.com is a “visual shopping” engine that displays images of products or people. Click on an image and the engine shows related products by analyzing the image and not text tags. The interface lets you focus on areas of an image to find similar products by shape or color. Blinkx TV is a search engine that searches audio, video and podcasts using keywords and phrases but also content from inside the clip that you’re looking for – be it a phrase sung in a song or a product name mentioned in a podcast.>

While marketers will probably have to learn new methods to keep their results high in Universal Search, it seems clear that niche search engines can offer unique ways to appeal to everyday searchers, too. SEER Interactive’s Reynolds trusts the Web audience is a savvy one. “When you get to very specific niche engines, the consumer is very knowledgeable. They are more likely to convert. ” Google got people hooked for years before they started serving ads.”

Search for Tomorrow

It doesn’t take Edwin Hubble to recognize that the search universe is expanding. Instead of studying faraway galaxies to see the shifts in the cosmos, it only takes a glance at the home page of any major search engine to realize that search is moving at light speed.

The stars of search – America Online, Google, MSN and Yahoo – are attempting to extend their reach by launching a stream of search tools that provide custom filters of online information. The rate of change has sharply accelerated during the past year, and it seems that with every fortnight comes a new personalized, localized or visualized search method aimed at speeding up the delivery of relevant results.

A decade ago it was assumed that most users would find companies and information through portals that organize content into easy-to-navigate sections. However during the past few years search engines, led by Google, have become the primary resource for finding information.

According to an April 2005 Harris Interactive survey, Web surfers said they use a search engine during more than 90 percent of their online sessions.

“Google’s sneak attack was quality,” says Jon Cooper, vice president of interactive services at search marketing firm UnREAL Marketing. Instead of trying to direct users to content partners or handpicking links, Cooper says offering quality search results is the best model for satisfying surfers.

Google’s model of throwing open the doors through advertising-supported search has won out over trying to provide premium content. “As long as the content is pretty good and free, people will take the path of least resistance,” Cooper says. Google’s ad-supported search model has helped search engine marketing grow to a $4 billion industry in 2004, according to the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO).

Tools of the Trade

Basic search tools provided by all of the big four include standard search, image search and news search, although the depth of the search results can vary widely among engines. For example, AOLSearch’s news tool generates results from news wire services only, while all of its competitors include links to articles from newspapers and online media outlets.

This year’s flurry of new search tools will generate additional volumes of Web traffic (and therefore advertising opportunities) by adding utility, increasing the level of competition and enhancing the significance of search in daily online activity.

Google and Yahoo have been the most active during a frenetic 2005 in rolling out new search tools, while AOL and MSN are also rapidly increasing the profile of search on their portals. Instead of taking away traffic from others, the new features will prompt more searches, and advertisers are expected to increase their search engine marketing spending by 41 percent in 2005, according to SEMPO. “The pie keeps getting bigger,” says David Berkowitz, director of marketing at search advertising agency icrossing.

Google and Yahoo have added personalization features that tailor results so that the most appropriate links for the individual are delivered at the top of the results page. Google’s Personalized Search enables users to scan their past searches to “re-find” information and uses the search history to refine the results. Yahoo’s personalization service, My Web 2.0, similarly uses past searches to refine results, as well as enabling friends to share pages that they have visited.

According to Nielsen NetRatings, nearly 70 percent of all search traffic flows through Google (48 percent) and Yahoo (21.2 percent). Personalized search could increase Google and Yahoo’s market leadership because it produces better results without asking users to change the way they search.

Most people use relatively simple one-or-two-word search terms that lack the context to filter out inappropriate results. For example, someone who searches on “Lincoln” will get results about the car, city, university and the president, but a personalized search relying on previous experiences would automatically narrow the results.

“Changing user behavior is a challenge,” says Gary Price, news editor of SearchEngineWatch.com and editor of ResourceShelf.com, because even after many years of searching, people still make the same mistakes. Since people won’t change, “search engines have to do things to make results more relevant,” he says. If what they are looking for is not delivered in the first 20 results, users will give up on a search, according to Price.

Getting Googled

Price says it’s much easier for the market leaders to get users to experiment with new search features than it is for their smaller competitors. When Google introduces a new vertical service, such as a search of academic papers or product catalogs, Web users and the press provide plenty of coverage.

“Google is a PR juggernaut,” says Price, adding that the word of mouth the company gets from enthusiastic supporters puts competitors at a disadvantage. Yahoo similarly generated considerable buzz when it launched tools for searching subscription content and comparison-shopping sites, even though similar services existed from lesser-known competitors.

The challenges for search engines not named Google or Yahoo in spreading the word will likely further the current trend toward consolidation in the search engine industry. Smaller companies that fail to distinguish themselves are likely to be acquired, according to Price.

Microsoft has become more serious about the importance of search on MSN, which previously served as more of a shopping and news portal and showcase for emerging Microsoft media technologies than a top-tier search engine. Microsoft decided in 2003 to replace the Yahoo search technology it had been using with its own search technology, which went online in February this year, according to MSN product manager Justin Osmer.

Osmer says MSN Search’s product development is focused on giving factual answers and not just links. When users type in a question, MSN searches Microsoft’s Encarta database as well as external resources for the answer, an approach similar to that of niche search engine AskJeeves.com. For example, typing in “Phillies score” will yield the score of the team’s latest game as the first result, while “population of Seattle” displays the latest statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Google and Microsoft are further enhancing the importance of search in everyday computing by integrating Internet and desktop search. Both companies have launched free desktop search utilities, and Google’s Gmail email service replaces folders with a search model.

America Online is beta testing a new home page highlighting search tools that makes available to everyone a portion of the content that was previously restricted to subscribers. In addition to reference material and product search utilities, AOL now provides multimedia searches that enable users to tap into its considerable content partnerships.

AOL Search’s video search uses technology from fellow Time Warner subsidiary SingingFish and includes clips from television shows, movies and music videos, while the audio search displays radio program segments and music tracks.

Yahoo’s AltaVista also includes audio search technology, and Google is developing technology to search the text of audio, according to a report in the New York Post. Searching the spoken word currently requires developing faster and more accurate speech recognition technology, but eventually “will become just as important as the written word,” according to SearchEngineWatch’s Gary Price.

Steam Behind the Local Motion

According to Chris Henger, vice president of marketing and product development at Performics, the new tools will propel search marketing to become a $13 million industry within four years. Matching consumers with local sellers is expected to be one of the largest areas of search growth, according to Henger. “Local search is the biggest thing and opens up the door to a whole new set of advertisers,” he says. (See “Think Global, Search Local” on page 40.)

All four of the top search sites have launched local search services that look for nearby businesses selling services or items that match the search term. Henger says that working with smaller regional companies poses some challenges for search companies. Search engines will be interfacing with smaller companies that may be inexperienced in the business model, which may require search engines to augment their existing sales teams with a network of local sales representatives, according to Henger.

MSN’s beta local search service attempts to match the searcher with relevant local information by automatically scanning IP addresses, according to Microsoft’s Osmer. The location of the searching computer is used to call up nearby business listings, and the same technology is also used to identify the location of the results pages so that nearby websites are given priority.

The search engines will have to contend with established phone directory companies such as Verizon’s SuperPages.com, YellowPages.com, YellowBook.com and Amazon.com’s A9, which recently launched a visual search tool that provides images of the actual storefronts.

All of the search engines are experimenting with RSS (really simple syndication) search capabilities, which could further boost the amount of advertising opportunities. RSS is a method of formatting content used by many news sites and bloggers to share information with other publishers. Tracking feeds currently requires RSS reader applications, but search engines are likely to integrate RSS into search in the not-too-distant future.

Google rotates RSS feeds into its Gmail service, which could pave the way for broader RSS searching. MSN Search enables users to save any search query as an RSS feed, eliminating the need to repeat searches. Yahoo is integrating RSS into its news search, and AOLSearch includes video content formatted with Media RSS, which describes the content of the video.

Connecting search advertising with bloggers and news content through RSS would take advantage of some of the Web’s fastest growing segments. Google is currently posting some RSS advertisements on Gmail, and in July WashingtonPost.com became the first major news organization to include ads with its RSS feeds. Yahoo is testing RSS as a medium and looking into the viability of RSS advertising, according to senior manager of communications Gaude Paez.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Keeping up with all of the search options and learning the benefits of each presents challenges to advertisers and users who must determine which variations will work best for them. The home pages of the top search engines now include a half dozen or more search options, and beta search technologies are often listed on their own pages.

When initiating a search, users have to keep mental notes as to which search tool will work best for each occasion. Users who would like to speed up searches through personalized search must remember yet another ID and password, and also have to remember to sign out before performing searches that they would rather not have saved on a search engine’s servers.

Marketers have to decide which of the multitude of search tools from a given search engine they want to participate in, and then figure out how to track their return on investment. For example, a search marketer might be getting good returns on standard search, but might not do as well on local search and generate no returns from news searches associated with their keyword or contextual ad.

Since each new tool increases the magnitude and complexity of search marketing, the need for interactive agencies will greatly increase, according to Chris Henger of Performics.

“Companies will need to go to specialists and third parties” to sort through the dozens of search marketing options, he says. Specialized agencies will track the new search tools for volume, user demographics and potential ROI.

Icrossing’s David Berkowitz says the rise in search tools “is phenomenal for interactive agencies because it makes it very difficult to keep track of everything that is going on.”

Search marketers also have to consider if they want to exclude having their ads show up on specific websites that include content that they consider objectionable. Berkowitz says large advertisers will call on agencies to protect their brands from unwanted associations, particularly with the rise in video and audio searches.

The search engines are committed to extracting the maximum value from the growing universe of content by producing personalized packets of information. New customized tools that anticipate the intent of users’ queries or automatically refine the scope of the search will further entrench search as the de facto first step in the quest for online information.

JOHN GARTNER is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore. He is a former editor at Wired News and CMP. His articles regularly appear on Wired.com, AlterNet.org and in MIT’s TechnologyReview.com.

Think Global, Search Local

If you are looking for help with your water heater in Plano, Texas, Harvey West is your man. Type in “water heater plano texas” on Yahoo and this ad will come up as the top sponsored result: Harvey West Plumbing Company: Water Heater. Family owned and operated repair and replacement plumbing company with fair prices and fast service. $25.00 discount to all new customers.

Off to the right, you’ll see sponsored results from the likes of Lowe’s, eBay, Target and BizRate. But West, who sold his 35-person plumbing company and now works solely with his son-in-law, manages to get the primo spot on search engines these days.

Run a Google search with the same keywords and, once again, Harvey West will be the top dog.

West admits pricing varies by geography and estimates that he shells out a mere $2 per click. Because it’s so cost-effective, Internet advertising is the only marketing the Texan plumber does these days, and it accounts for most of his leads. West is on to something: Local search is growing at an astonishing rate, and the numbers are absolutely staggering.

Searching for Profits

According to comScore Media Metrix, more than 421 million local Web searches were conducted in February. That means the number of times users conducted Web searches for local information more than doubled from January 2004 to February 2005.

Online merchants are eager to capitalize on the trend. Commerce sites typically convert 2.4 percent of visitors into customers, according to a study by retailer association Shop.org. The typical brick-and-mortar conversion rate is about 1 percent. The proliferation of broadband should help e-commerce grow even more. As people can more quickly find results, they are more likely to make purchases.

Industry observers say the already sizable local search market is likely to lift even further. Total local online advertising sales are expected to grow to $5 billion by 2009, with $3.4 billion of that coming from search engines, The Kelsey Group predicts.

Compare that figure to $670 million in 2004, with $162 million coming from search engines.

Sales of sponsored links and other forms of search advertising are expected to increase at a 12 percent compound annual growth rate, generating more revenue than display ads by 2010, according to JupiterResearch.

ComScore found that 111 million people execute 46 billion Internet searches yearly. And The Kelsey Group-BizRate estimates that 25 percent of all Internet searches are local in nature, meaning local consumers are looking for local merchants.

Although local search has really taken off only recently, local search queries already account for more than a third of all search engine queries. If surfers add a geographic term (like city or ZIP code) to their search queries, the results show them businesses within their area, usually giving them results they want – happy searchers, happy local businesses and happy publishers.

Make fun of the Yellow Pages if you want; the local listings are laughing all the way to the bank. This market has been dominated by local phone directories, like the Yellow Pages, with profit margins of 50 percent or more.

SBC made a hefty $2 billion in profits from its publishing unit last year on revenues of $3.8 billion. Researchers at The Kelsey Group predict at least $3 billion of Yellow Pages money will move online by 2008. To put that in perspective, the total Internet ad market was $9.6 billion last year.

But search engines attract 66 percent of online local search users, according to comScore. Clearly, local search is exploding. There is a huge potential to make money – it’s reportedly a $1.2 billion market – and that’s why search localization is the focus of efforts by AOL, Google, MSN and Yahoo.

Competitive Landscape

New data from Hitwise, an online competitive intelligence service, show that the top three search engines – Google, Yahoo Search and MSN Search – accounted for 93.5 percent of U.S. Internet searches across major engines in July 2005.

Visits to Yahoo Local (local.yahoo.com) were 4.4 times greater than visits to Google Local (local.google.com) in July 2005. However, Google Local’s market share increased 61 percent between February and July, while Yahoo Local grew 14 percent.

Google Local’s catch-up is occurring amid the growth of Google Maps (maps.google.com), which has quickly grown to become the third-ranked site in the Hitwise Travel-Maps category in July 2005. Maps have become important to local search users, as 17 percent of Yahoo Local’s visitors went directly on to Yahoo Maps in July 2005.

Yahoo has another advantage when it comes to local search: it has 176 million registered users, so it can direct local ads to people who have provided their cities or ZIP codes upon registration. While Google and Yahoo currently dominate the landscape, MSN has the financial resources to maneuver its way into search superiority. Microsoft spent $44 million marketing various MSN services in the first four months of 2005, while Yahoo spent $14 million – versus just $2 million for Google, says TNS Media Intelligence.

Still, underdog AOL is striving to play catch-up. AOL has long been for members only but it recently opened up its borders, enabling more of America to access its content. The move is meant to encourage advertisers, both national brands and local businesses, to fork over ad dollars because their ads will be seen by more than just AOL subscribers. It is clearly intent on trying to grab a share of search profits. And for good reason: Internet search advertising is set to overtake pedestrian online banner advertising by 2010, as online sales double to $18.9 billion, up from $9.3 billion at the end of 2004, according to JupiterResearch.

Executives at the Big Three realize that local is the way to go. “The local search market should be larger than [Google’s] other markets because most people’s purchases are local,” said Google CEO Eric Schmidt, at an investor conference in May. And Google isn’t alone in its thinking. All the major players are looking for more ways to attract the most local search dollars.

The various search parties are using several approaches to move into local advertising. Maps are a leading tool. MSN has launched a beta of its Virtual Earth application. A Locate Me feature finds a present location and lets the consumer explore and discover the area around them. The Locate Me link activates Microsoft Location Finder, which uses Wi-Fi access points or Internet Protocol address geocoding, to determine a person’s location.

Google has its Keyhole technology. Google bought dodgeball.com and, at press time, aborted plans to acquire Meetroduction, “location-aware social networking software.” Google’s interest in social networking and mobile technologies show its commitment to localized services.

Mobile search is a promising prospect because people are attached to their cell phones and are often looking for goods and services while on the go. Eyeing this mobile climate, AOL bought mobile software company Wildseed; Google has local search for mobile phones; Yahoo introduced a texting service for getting local search listings. While mobile search is still in its infancy, it is likely to take off quickly and add another element to the local search wars.

Local Winners

In August 2005, Affinity Internet announced the launch of ValueTraffic Local, a service that helps small business to target their online advertising to Web searchers in specific geographic areas. Mastering the art of local search is a skill that few possess, but those who do stand to reap rich benefits.

Harvey West, the Texan plumber, is so good at bidding on keywords and tweaking ads that a number of other plumbing outfits, from Philadelphia to Palo Alto, Calif. hire him to help them with their local search efforts.

Cabrillo Plumbing & Heating in the San Francisco Bay Area does extensive advertising – TV spots on local cable, direct mail, Yellow Page ads and moving billboards in the form of company trucks.

“We track every piece of advertising scientifically,” says President Jeff Meehan who handles Cabrillo’s advertising himself. He even shot Cabrillo’s TV commercial on 35 mm film in his mother’s kitchen.

But when it comes to Internet marketing, Meehan hands the reigns over to West. “I’ve given him carte blanche to get us at the top bar for our service area which is San Francisco and Palo Alto.”

West says a Philly plumber doesn’t have much competition and only has to pay around 75 cents a click. Meehan, however, forks over more like $4 or $5 a click because there’s more competition for eyeballs in the Bay Area.

“If you bid the most, you’ll get the highest listing,” explains West. But plumbing is a business where you can spend $300 acquiring new customers – he recalls the days when he spent $8,000 a month on Yellow Page ads alone – so $5 is a deal, says West. But local search isn’t something you let stay static.

Tweak, Tweak, Tweak

Searches for “yoga San Francisco” and “spa San Francisco” found International Orange, located in San Francisco.

“We do local search marketing for good reason,” says co-founder Amy Darland. “It’s effective, and you aren’t committed for a month or year. It’s a nice get-out-of-jail card.” Still, it’s such a tricky business that, like Meehan, she entrusts her search marketing to a Web advisor.

In the past year the average advertiser’s roster of keywords grew by 50 percent, according to Efficient Frontier a Mountain View, Calif., firm that manages $100 million in keyword purchases for its clients.

“People will go in and put in keywords and leave it like it was Yellow Pages,” says West. “You’ve got to tweak it, work on different ads, change it 15 times to see what gets the best clickthrough rates. As soon as it works, you’ll find it changes.”

Local search is a huge and expanding market. The major players are constantly changing and so it’s important to understand the evolving landscape. So how does local search impact primarily merchants and affiliates? It means that large, established merchants are bidding more to get top listings.

The growth of local search is a case of half-full, half-empty for affiliates. But they can take advantage of overlooked locales. They can bid for the top spot in small towns, getting local shoppers to connect to online merchants through their sites. While a spa search in San Francisco or New York results in a raft of sponsored results, there are many towns with only natural search results. So affiliate sites that link to SpaWish.com, for example, can take advantage of the undiscovered towns and bid to get sponsored spots that lead to commission payouts.

But affiliates hoping to be local leaders would be wise to heed Harvey West’s words: “You gotta keep on top of it.”


DIANE ANDERSON is an editor at Brandweek. She was the managing editor for Revenue magazine for Issue 4 and previously worked for the Industry Standard, HotWired and Wired News.