Building a Better Algorithm: The Little Engine(s) That Could

With nearly every Web user conducting searches on one of the three major engines, who's advertising on the second tiers? And why do marketers continue to use them?

The main reason: Those engines offer a way to reach niche markets.

Some search marketing executives compare using Google, Yahoo or MSN to taking the train into Manhattan for the day: If you're going on a major shopping spree, it could be worth the trip. But if you just need to get a quart of milk, or if you specifically need a quart of preservative-free wheat-grass soy milk in an enzyme-free container - trying to locate what you need among hundreds of stores might feel a little like looking for a needle in a haystack. What you really want is a smaller store in your own neighborhood that caters to your needs.

Second-tier search engines, the marketing execs say, are more like the corner store - more directly focused on specific needs, which is good for advertisers. Smaller engines tend to offer users more relevant results, explains Chris Copeland, senior partner and managing director of Outrider.* "We use second-tier search engines like Ask and Miva for our clients when we've maxed out scale on the big engines," he says.

That relevance can translate into better targeting, higher conversion rates (albeit from smaller pools of prospects) and ultimately higher long-term customer value. One of Outrider's retail clients gets 17 percent of all its search traffic from second-tier engines.*

The smaller players, such as Shopzilla for shopping and MapQuest for local, "have done a really good job branding themselves," says Jon Stewart, senior analyst at Nielsen//NetRatings. Some of the second-tier consumer search engines, such as, are capitalizing on their well-known offline brand identity.

Google's Universal Search definitely has second-tiers cautiously watching. But, Stewart says, "relevancy isn't the only factor in why someone would use a search engine. Default settings play a huge role. For instance, Google is embedded in Firefox but users [can] put in Comcast," he says. "That gives the ISPs a chance."

Also, while the Big Four own the PC, when you move into mobile devices and television, search is anybody's game, Copeland feels. "I think we'll come to a point where people are doing most of their searching on their TVs or mobile devices, and then the dominant search engine will mean less," Copeland says. "They'll be searching the same content, but they'll be doing it using a more relevant browser interface and search."

The higher the cost per click and the more big brands engage with the major engines, the more critical it will be for advertisers to find alternatives.

*This article was modified after its original posting.

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