What’s Up with Verticals?

First published July 27, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

You probably haven’t given a lot of thought lately to vertical search results, that thin sliver of search real estate that is sandwiched between the top sponsored ads and the top organic ads, and generally shows a few lines of news results, or local, or products. I have. Don’t panic, there’s really no reason why you should have. It’s really just a sad comment on my day-to-day activities. But I’ve noticed some things, and I think it’s incumbent upon me to share them with you. So let’s get vertical for a few moments, shall we?

In a Location Near You

First, this is prime real estate. When vertical results appear on the major engines, they appear smack in the middle of the hottest part of the page. After a number of eye tracking studies, we can say with a degree of certainty that most searchers (upwards of 80 percent) at least look at the top sponsored ads and the top three or so organic ads. That means that vertical, wedged in between, will be at least grazed over by a lot of eyeballs.

But position is not enough. Working the vertical angle is not just about grabbing some prime real estate. Verticals have to offer information scent. The information, links and visual cues they offer have to align with the user’s intent. In one bizarre example we saw during our latest study, somebody searched on Google for “digital cameras.” For some reason, Google saw fit to return news results for digital cameras. Now, just what percentage of the over two million people who searched for “digital cameras” last month (a quick estimate courtesy of Yahoo) do you guess would be looking for the scoop on how Nikon had to recall 710,000 digital camera batteries? Maybe the ex-product manager from Nikon, in between looking for new jobs on Monster, but that’s about it.

Hopelessly Devoted to OneBox?

While we’re on the subject, what’s the deal with Google and verticals anyway? Search pundit Greg Sterling said in a blog post some time ago that Google had an “almost religious devotion to OneBox,” its vertical label of choice. Could be, but it seems that a few in the temple of Google are questioning their religious affiliations. OneBox results have been a little sketchy of late. The reason this came to light is that I’ve just looked at 100-plus sessions in Google for a recent study, and there were surprisingly few of those sessions with OneBox results showing.

First of all, they hardly ever show for product-based searches. Try it for yourself. I must have tried over a dozen different common product searches before I got one that returned Froogle results via OneBox. Now why would that be? Well, for one thing, OneBox real estate competes with top sponsored ads, and perhaps advertisers are starting to resent the increased competition in their neighborhood for highly commercial searches. If that theory is correct, it flies in the face of Google’s goal to provide the most relevant results for each query, no matter what the source of the results. Another reason might be that Froogle has never really gained traction as a shopping engine. Maybe Google’s quiet dialing down the rate of appearance of Froogle results on the main page is their way of admitting that these results aren’t adding value to the user experience.

Doing Vertical Right

If you’re looking at a good example of Vertical execution, Yahoo seems to be currently leading the pack with its Shortcuts. The display of vertical results is consistent, and they seem to be one step ahead of the competition in aligning results with user intent.

Here are some examples we saw in a recent study:

One of the tasks given was to research the upcoming purchase of a digital camera. This resulted in a number of related queries being used, ranging from very general (“digital cameras”) to very specific (“Canon Powershot A530”). When these queries were thrown at Yahoo, the engine was able to differentiate and return appropriate vertical results. Broad generic phrases returned vertical results that compared known brands or allowed browsing by features. More specific queries returned links that led to reviews and best prices for that model alone. It was a great example of results matching intent, and we saw the interaction with these results go up dramatically as an example.

One very bright thing that Yahoo does consistently in its vertical listings is provide a 5-star rating scale. It appears for products, some local results (restaurants, hotels) and in various other places. When it comes to attracting our eye, nothing does the trick better than a visual cue that promises ratings. We love lists that sort from most popular to least popular. It’s the paradigm of the consumer researcher, and it’s something that reeks of scent. We saw eyeballs attracted to these icons like search marketers to an open bar (come on, I know many of you are already scoping out the cocktail network for San Jose).

A Vertical Future

I still believe that verticals mark a path into search’s future, but until the engines do better at disambiguating intent, either through personalization, behavioral tracking or just really smart key phrase parsing, they will be relegated to the thin sliver of real estate they currently occupy. Their success in luring users into what Sterling called a “Page 2” vertical experience will lie solely in how well they deliver on intent.

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