When people have asked me about "vertical search" and the associated opportunity, I’ve argued that there is an opportunity but it’s mixed. Because the general search market is locked up right now we’re seeing a ton of companies offering a more specialized content experience with search as the hook or angle. It’s also the case that some sites can offer something richer and deeper to users, as well as potentially more qualified leads to advertisers than come from traditional search engines.
Fundamentally, however, people cannot remember all these sites and don’t want to have to. That’s why search engines remain popular; they’re the "front door" or gateway to all this content.
Some sites, such as the recently launched Healthline.com, are a mix of structured, proprietary content and broader Web search in a category specific area. Simply Hired and Indeed are examples of vertical search in the Jobs category. By contrast, I wouldn’t call Cars.com a vertical search site. It’s a vertical directory site with highly structured fields and content and it doesn’t offer anything from the broader Internet. I would also not call TheKnot.com a vertical search site, though it uses search-based navigation.
Confused? Have another cup of coffee. Let’s get away from all this semantic mumbo jumbo for a moment.
According to this blurb in PaidContent, iVillage plans to soon relaunch and rebrand as Women.com (a site/URL it bought for many many millions some time ago). According to quoted remarks from the earnings call:
"We anticipate launching the new search at the end of the second quarter 2006. Our objective with Search for Women is to enhance and further customize our users and advertisers experience by participating in the so-called vertical search marketplace … this new product will allow us to promote iVillage brand by blanketing the Internet with add campaign promoting Search for the Women’s Intuition."
PaidContent questions the move: "It will be branded ‘Search for Women,’ whatever that means."
Precisely: What does that mean? It might effectively mean nothing and be a dismal failure. It might simply be a branding/marketing ploy.
However, let’s assume that this isn’t simply a marketing ploy and that the new Women.com is going to try to provide a better Web-search experience for women in general — a daunting task given how broad a category "women" is. And calling "search for women" vertical search almost renders the term "vertical search" meaningless. (I make the same argument when people say Local is a vertical.)
Yet women are arguably the most important constituency online. They are driving e-commerce and online shopping and they’re the ones writing the reviews on Judy’s Book and InsiderPages and engaging in the "social networking" activities, much more so than men.
So trying to grab the attention — and some of the wallet — of this group is wise. But what will Women.com provide (assuming again that it’s Web search for women) that Google, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Ask or InfoSpace/DogPile cannot?
I believe iVillage is working on that with Eurekster (I’m not 100 percent certain). After my meeting with Eurekster CEO Steven Marder, I recently wrote about about the company here:
They’re really an enterprise search B2B play that offers site search and more contextually relevant Web search. "Contextual" here means relevant to the user population of the site (teens, moms, sports fans, etc.). They do that with clickstream analysis of aggregate user query behavior. Initially Web search is weighted according to specific business rules, but the engine learns what the group thinks is relevant to particular queries. It’s a different relevance paradigm that gets "smarter" over time.
Women.com, using Eurekster’s engine/algorithm, at least in theory does offer a potentially differentiated search experience — one that is hypothetically more relevant because it’s less "generic" and based on aggregated user behavior. So there is at least a potential value proposition here with some meaning (assuming I’m right about the relationship).
But whether Women.com could become something like the "Google for Women" is another story entirely. (My words not theirs.) That’s a hugely ambitious proposition. Let’s see when iVillage relaunches in the second quarter.