Vertical Search Engines

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2633, 2008-08-15, as the cover article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 5-7) and their website.

When people want to search the Internet for Web pages and other resources associated with a keyword, or a key phrase, or some combination thereof, they typically turn to one of the major search engines, such as those offered by Google or Yahoo. Generic search engines such as these may be the most popular on the Internet, and they may encompass the largest number of indexed pages, versus their competitors. Yet there are alternatives — and not just lesser-known generic search engines, such as Ask.com and Live Search, which rarely provide any advantages over their more powerful competitors.

Vertical search engines (VSEs) make available largely the same capabilities as the generic search engines, but by specializing in a particular area — such as blogs, people, podcasts — they can focus on a limited taxonomy, thereby eliminating the problem that occurs when you search for particular term with a generic search engine, and most of the hits end up being for a more popular homograph (i.e., a word spelled the same as your keyword, but with a different meaning). The algorithms that power VSEs can be fine-tuned to the semantics specific to their subject area. Furthermore, the information engineers and software architects behind any particular VSE will most likely have a much higher level of knowledge of that domain, versus their counterparts who are building and enhancing the generic search engines.

The edge to be gained from focusing on a more limited domain, extends beyond taxonomy and other linguistic considerations. Greater search accuracy and precision can be achieved because the VSE user interface can incorporate search criteria that would be far more unwieldy, if not impossible, in any of the user interfaces provided by the generic search engines. For instance, a VSE dedicated to searching for podcasts, could allow the user to specify a particular bit rate, or a range of acceptable bit rates, such as 128 kbps to 256 kbps.

Extending the idea of greater user interface capabilities, a VSE can offer domain-specific services and tools. If a generic search engine were to try the same, the number of such services and tools would most likely be overwhelming to anyone trying to use their system. The domain-specific resources could also include offers from companies that are partnered with the VSE. Lastly, for marketing purposes, people who elect to use a VSE over a generic search engine are probably better potential customers.

Fishing for Blogs

As the total number of blogs on the Internet skyrocketed, it became increasingly difficult, using traditional search engines, to identify the better blogs — or at least those dedicated to a particular topic or area of discussion. This inevitably lead to the emergence of a number of VSEs focusing on the blogosphere.

Technorati may currently be the most well-known and popular blog search engine. In addition to offering both basic and advanced search capabilities, visitors to the site can check out sections devoted to business, entertainment, lifestyle, politics, sports, and technology. Technorati has supplemented their blog listings within each category with the latest news stories. Blogosphere purists may denigrate this as a watering down of the company's unique service, but most site users probably do not mind the additional headlines, story summaries, and links.

Naturally, the reigning champion of Web search was not about to stand idly by, and instead joined the fray with Google Blog Search. Its user interface sports the expected minimalist design; in fact, it looks almost identical to its generic brother in most respects. But instead of the largely useless "I'm Feeling Lucky" button, Google's blog search engine has a button for extending the search beyond blogs, and presumably ties in with their generic search service.

One of the lesser-known rivals to the aforesaid services, is Icerocket. Like most of the others, it can be easily used for locating images, videos, and news stories, in addition to blogs. Blog Search Engine utilizes the results from Icerocket, but with a twist: It allows users to rate the various blogs listed. Also, it groups blogs into 47 categories, ranging from alternative lifestyles to writing.

Moving Pictures

Mainstream television networks and movie cinemas appear to be slowly losing their battle for the eyeballs and pocketbooks of Americans who are discovering the incredibly diverse and rich world of Web-based videos and audio shows, which can be streamed to the user's computer or other online device, or downloaded and played later. These multimedia offerings come in a variety of file formats. They span a wide range of subject matter (financial, health, politics, news, society, and many more). Some are pathetically amateurish, while others can boast of production quality equal to that of conventional paid media — partly because many of them are simply online versions ripped (illegally) from network and cable TV shows!

But they all share something in common: Despite their popularity, they can be a challenge to locate on the Web — especially for the more arcane topics, and even more so for multimedia files posted on Web pages lacking keywords that would make them much more easy to find with generic search engines.

This is another area where VSEs can really shine. For instance, Odeo is designed to allow searching for audiovisual and audio-only clips from thousands of websites. The service also groups their findings into 13 categories, ranging from the arts to technology. The digital media shows listed are not limited to the United States, as evidenced by at least one entry in the comedy category, Scotland's Funny Bits, created by the BBC. You can rest assured that the dull U.S. television networks will never let you see "Wedgies, Wigs and Wellies".

Ever since its takeover by the search giant Google, YouTube has attempted to make it easier to search for videos on their site. Prior to becoming Googlized, the YouTube homepage displayed a considerable number of popular videos. Now only three featured videos are shown by default. On the other hand, the search field automatically displays the most popular searches based on what you have typed into the field so far.

Other Areas

The two subject areas discussed above are just the tip of the iceberg. Vertical search engines are finding increasing acceptance and usage in domains as disparate as music (e.g., Yahoo Music), people (e.g., WhitePages), and travel (Kayak.com).

So if you want to spend less time sifting through a list of millions of hits from a generic search engine, and more time zeroing in on the top results within a particular subject area, then consider using one or more vertical search engines. After all, you might be feeling lucky, but that is no way to find the best results.

Copyright © 2008 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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