With Search Market Flattening, B-to-B Players Go Vertical

Nielsen//NetRatings last month sent the burgeoning search advertising marketplace into a tizzy with a report suggesting that demand is outpacing supply in the search market, and that future growth will be contingent upon innovation in localization, personalization and specialization from search providers.

But one category of search, so-called "vertical search," is growing fast. Many content providers now feel it's important to include such on-site search in their business plans, and as some vertical-specific content providers are discovering, vertical search presents unique opportunities.

"In a B2B context, search can successfully be combined with browsing," notes Greg Sterling, editorial director of The Kelsey Group (TKG). He says such B-to-B players are developing new ways of capitalizing on their search technology, such as licensing it to other sites, selling display advertising, pay-per-click search, or even paid inclusion.

A good example of this is KnowledgeStorm, an Internet technology search provider, which today is set to announce a partnership with ECT News Network's CRM (customer relationship management) Buyer Resource Center. The CRM Buyer Resource Center is intended to be a meeting place for buyers and sellers of CRM technology, where they can access data, make vendor comparisons, and conduct research on available IT solutions. The company also licenses its technology to WSJ.com, InfoWorld, and Techcenter.com.

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KnowledgeStorm Executive Vice President of Products, Technology and Marketing, Jeff Ramminger, notes that you could apply the term "micro- vertical" to the kind of service Knowledgestorm will be providing for CRM Buyer, because the company will only be mining a certain sub-section of its database in providing content to CRM Buyer.

KnowledgeStorm will power the co-branded, on-site search engine, providing CRM Buyer's readers with relevant information on CRM products and services from its database of IT products and services. CRM Buyer will then take a cut from sales generated by KnowledgeStorm's paying vendor customers.

Ramminger notes that it's easier for a search provider like KnowledgeStorm to provide specific vertical information than a Web search giant like Google, because KnowledgeStorm pulls data from structured content rather than a massive Web crawler that constantly scans billions of Web pages. This, he says, translates into a more "predictable" search experience for the end-user.

According to Ramminger, KnowledgeStorm doesn't directly compete with Web search providers like Google or Yahoo, or even tech sites like CNET. Because it sells to a specialized IT market, Ramminger says KnowledgeStorm can charge each of its B2B vendors for inclusion in the company's database. This is called paid inclusion, a controversial search tactic that is currently deployed by Yahoo and its subsidiary, Overture.

Paid inclusion is the process of paying for guaranteed inclusion in the "organic" search results of relevant queries. Google has shunned the process, and industry pundits have referred to the process as "unfair," even "evil." Having said that, Yahoo doesn't require companies to pay for inclusion in its database like Knowledgestorm does. In fact, paid inclusion is just small part of the company's search strategy, whereas for KnowledgeStorm, paid inclusion is the company's search strategy

According to the TKG's Sterling, the playing field is a little bit different for vertical search providers. He says that if a given company in a B2B context has literally cornered its market-no matter how small-it can charge for inclusion in its results the way KnowledgeStorm does. Sterling says the playing field is different for B2B companies because the community is small and the information profitable to everyone.

"It's all about what your market position is," For high-traffic sites with steady competition, he says pay-per-click is a better model, but for business-facing vertical search providers with small, but effective reach, they can charge for guaranteed inclusion as long as they've cornered their market and can deliver the right metrics.

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