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July 30, 2008

Has The Fuse Been Lit For A Vertical And Social Search Explosion?

“The search landscape is evolving” – sure, we hear that everyday in this industry, but when you log on to Google, it’s hard to drink the Kool-Aid.  I have to admit, I think I’m finally starting to feel the “hype” thanks to some inspiriting things from the Yahoo camp.  When Yahoo said they were going to “Open Up”, I didn’t think they’d kick the barn doors open this wide, this fast.  This is exciting.  On the heels of SearchMonkey, Yahoo recently announced BOSS, another component of their “Y!OS”, or Yahoo Open Strategy.   I think vertical / social engines are finally going to get their 15 minutes, and I couldn’t be happier.

From Yahoo: BOSS (Build your Own Search Service) is Yahoo!’s open search web services platform. The goal of BOSS is simple: to foster innovation in the search industry. Developers, start-ups, and large Internet companies can use BOSS to build and launch web-scale search products that utilize the entire Yahoo! Search index. BOSS gives you access to Yahoo!’s investments in crawling and indexing, ranking and relevancy algorithms, and powerful infrastructure. By combining your unique assets and ideas with our search technology assets, BOSS is a platform for the next generation of search innovation, serving hundreds of millions of users across the Web.

BOSS is an effort to update the model, and develop a stronger footing in search.  If you think about it, search engine progress has been slow lately, especially compared to the evolution of the rest of the web.  The best way to make fast, impactful headway is to peel away from horizontal search, and test out new Web 2.0 breeds of vertical search products.  Traditionally, there have been heavy risks and costs associated with this kind of venture.  With BOSS, hopefully the tides can turn, and a plethora of attempts that weren’t previously possible based on these concerns, may suddenly ascend.  Sure, there will be casualties, but it’s much less likely to be Yahoo if they’re the backbone to all these ventures.  Yahoo is probably thinking, “If we can’t beat them, we can be their engine.”

With social computing slated to reach everything from cell phone platforms, webmail accounts, video game consoles, and desktop applications, it’s logical that it will hit search in a big way.  The ball is rolling – the new engine Me.dium is a social search engine running off BOSS, and is ultimately supposed to be a crowd-controlled engine.  Does that mean the noble intention of a human-maintained engine like Mahalo can be improved with social search?  I would think so.  I’m already pretty happy with the vertical search in my favorite social networks – I’m finding myself checking properties like, LinkedIn, Technorati, StumbleUpon, and Mixx before hitting Google when I know the kind of results I’m looking for (which is most the time).

If there’s one truism about the web, it’s that things move incredibly fast.  A site like eBay was nothing as a start-up in 1995, and a household name in 1998 – in web years, that’s incredibly fast, especially considering that was more than 10 years ago.  The novelty of bidding, and the value of discounts, feedback, and communication ultimately made the spirit of purchasing online seem less like a fad.  Granted, there was still a lot of fear about fraud and security then, but once those safety concerns started to quell (mainly in part to eBay’s efforts, Paypal, and users’ word of mouth), millions of people were at least semi-consciously accepting online ecommerce across the board.  All ecommerce, from Amazon to shopping verticals/engines, were benefactors from this new phenomenon.   The web is always accepting of the next big cultural influencer, and is usually poked by the last big sensation – in this case (as of 2008), social networks.  History suggests it is going to happen fast, and sudden.  In today’s web-world, a 10 year span is a 1-2 year span; or, a blink of an eye to a busy human-being.

So what if horizontal search continues to fall behind, and vertical / social hybrids become household names?  What does this mean for search marketing?  Well, it certainly suggests marketers will have to be on their toes, but this should still offer many new branding and ROI opportunities if leveraged correctly.   It will most certainly lead to a higher likelihood of targeted, converting traffic.   That’s a huge benefit.  Your pre-qualified visitors will be even more qualified.  SEO 2.0 will likely become the norm, and leave the beta stage it’s in now.  The idea of marrying SEO and communities may seem difficult, but it simply requires more marketing and visitor understanding than traditional SEO provides.  SEO will simply have to morph in tandem with the search engines, and leave behind some of the general exposure tactics.  Not only will a vertical and social affect the actions of your users, but it will likely start to play a more important role to your CPC quality scores, too, as visitors will start to become accustomed to improved results and search experience.  Some research firms think vertical search might draw a billion dollars in revenue by the end of 2009; hundreds of new engines are already popping up without the help of BOSS now, but this may grow exponentially making these huge profits a real possible.

It’s an exciting time to be on the web.  It will be great to see what hands the other search properties are holding.  Last week Google showed their hand with their testing of social computing in their platform.  This is just the beginning of something very, very cool.

Bill Sebald is a search marketing consultant and enthusiast.  As a 10 year SEO, Bill writes about SEO 2.0 on his blog