June 1, 2007, 12:00 AM

A sea of shoppers

Spearfishing vs. casting a wide net: Search marketers try out niche search engines.

A shopper is looking for blue jeans. At a shopping mall she sees two large stores-one with limited sales staff with only a broad understanding of what they sell and another with associates who’ve cleared the entire shop of everything except blue jeans and are ready to determine precisely what kind of jeans she wants: fit, style and price. There, the shopper quickly is presented with a choice of three pairs of jeans that meet all requirements, and she’s so elated she whips out her credit card and decides to buy all three.

Shoppers of course would prefer the store where it’s faster and easier to connect with what they want. The same goes for retailers looking to connect their products with customers. Now change “store” to “search engine” and the result is the definition of vertical search.

These category and subcategoryspecific online product search sites are dedicated to shopping and product search, in contrast to general search engines that also offer the opportunity to search out other kinds of information.

As such, they focus product search more sharply than do product search options at general search engines. For example, there really is a search engine dedicated to women’s jeans, Zafu.com. FindGift.com focuses on-you guessed it-finding gifts, while Bookfinder.com is dedicated to books and Spafinder.com to searching for the perfect spa experience. And there are many others.

The more niched the vertical product search engines are, the less traffic they get. But how much does that matter if the traffic they do get is extremely interested in buying what the vertical engines help find? A growing number of marketers are out to answer that question, experimenting with a similarly growing number of vertical product search engines.

One merchant satisfied with vertical search is CowboyChuck.com, an online retailer of framed, personalized cartoon art. After buying keywords on other search engines, president and cofounder Michael Brown experimented with listing products on FindGift.com.

“For our product and our situation, it outperformed everything else combined,” he says. One key: thumbnail images of the art integrated into search results on the engine. Though Brown still buys keywords on Google, the cost of clicks on FindGift.com now represents the majority of his marketing spend.

It’s no secret online retailers are looking for alternatives to augment paid search campaigns they run on large search engines (see story, page 150). “Most advertisers in general are concerned about the rising cost of keywords and they are looking for a way to improve the ROI of their campaigns. One of the primary ways they do that, according to our Search Engine Marketing Executive Survey, is to focus on expanding campaigns to multiple engines,” says Kevin Heisler, analyst at JupiterReseach, a firm specializing in the impact of the Internet and emerging technologies on businesses. “It’s a natural evolution for companies to start targeting more narrowly the visitors that might be looking for what they offer.”

A seller of wind chimes, for example, has a highlyspecific target audience. “With a niche audience, it’s not about the amount of traffic you are going to get, it’s about the customers you are going to get,” says Matt McMahon, vice president of products and services at search marking company Fathom Online. “So if you buy keywords on Google, even though Google has hundreds of millions of queries each month, there are not going to be that many queries on wind chimes. Your audience is as big as your category.”

Comparison shopping engines such as Shopping.com and Shopzilla represent a first cut in separating shoppers from the larger universe of web searchers. But these shopping engines still are broadly populated with products, which opens an opportunity for targeted search vehicles that go even deeper into segmentation. As a result, there are more search engines than there used to be. According to Heisler, “Search engines have seen the opportunity to carve out niches that have essentially never been explored before.”

To get into vertical product search engines, retailers generally provide a feed from their product database to the engine. They pay fees to the engine on clickthroughs or in some cases on sales to referred traffic. Retailers generally don’t bid for positions within product listings, which most often are ranked according to criteria such as search relevancy and popularity. Beyond product listings, a few vertical engines also accept sponsored payperclick ads from third parties, which are delineated from the product listings.

Reaching more shoppers

For retailers participating in search on the major engines, vertical engines are positioning themselves in part as a way to capture customers the retailers might not otherwise reach.

“People are becoming more sophisticated in the way they search for information and in how relevant they want it to be the first time around. We have data that tells us there is a segment of customers who are going to make their shopping decisions through a vertical search engine, and it’s a segment we feel is growing. If you want to reach that audience you are going to have to participate in the opportunities offered in vertical search,” says Matt Greitzer, national search lead at search marketing services company AvenueA/Razorfish.

Even Amazon participates in vertical search on Bookfinder.com, which populates its engine with data feeds and other methods of gathering product content. The vertical engine collects a fee on sales from the traffic it drives to retailers. But why does Amazon, whose own URL is handsdown the bestknown among online book buyers, need a niche engine such as Bookfinder.com?

“Nobody doesn’t want more sales. Working with Bookfinder.com is a great way for booksellers to get incremental sales they would not have been able to get from another source,” says Bookfinder.com founder and CEO Anivran Chatterjee. Besides having a broad base that includes market segments such as textbook buyers and highend collectors who might not look first on a general engine, Bookfinder.com’s engine has large base of international users. “We manage to channel a lot of international sales to our American booksellers, and vice versa,” Chatterjee says.

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