One of the examples in the white paper is a dentist who searches for "ceramics" on Google only to find thousands of results related to enthusiast hobbies like pottery. The authors point to DentalProducts.net as a more relevant source of information for this searcher. Makes perfect sense.
However, would that searcher need (or want) to go to DentistProducts.net if The Big 4 could identify him or her as a dentist and, based on past search activity, better narrow the results to include only those from directories like DentalProducts.net and the various sites included in its index?
Searchers epitomize the instant-gratification, short-attention span behavior that is becoming more and more prevalent in today's society. And it's not just Generation-Y. As a colleague of mine, who's been in the ad world for over 40 years, likes to say, "Even an old mossback like me searches once in a while, but if it takes two clicks, I'm gone."
Searchers don't want to perform multiple queries--nor do they want to go to different search engines to find different pieces of information. But today, they have no choice. As the white paper points out, refining the search as "dentists and ceramics" on Google yields no better results. And, on the flip side, that dentist is not going to use DentalProducts.net to find a good lunch spot near the office or a Christmas present for his niece.
Clearly, until search results can be better customized on the general engines, many searchers will prefer (and find value in) going to an engine or directory tailored specifically to their needs. But think about how far the Big 4 have come in just the past couple years in terms of personalization and tools for refining search queries. The time is not long before the general engines will be able to deliver results as relevant as today's vertical engines--if not more, when overlaid with past browsing behavior, social networking, tagging, etc.
Until that time, however, vertical search engines will continue to spring up and we, search marketers, will continue to tap them for targeted ad opportunities. Admittedly though, like searchers, we too would prefer an environment where everything ran through as few sources as possible--for reasons like technology integration, resource efficiency, data centralization, etc.
We know that the Big 4 recognize this and are working furiously to get to the point where 100 percent of search activity falls within their domains. The only way this will happen, though, is if they can satisfy that dentist's need for info on dental ceramics at the office, for restaurants at lunchtime, and gift ideas at home.
At the end of the day, the degree to which the Big 4 continue to innovate will determine just how long the market opportunity for vertical engines lasts.
I do believe, however, that this is a "when," not "if," proposition.