Most search optimization and marketing campaigns have one end goal: top rankings in Google. Some efforts may be directed towards Yahoo; and while top spots in MSN or Ask don't hurt, few search marketers actively target them.
If Yahoo can't overtake Google's lead, Microsoft's Live has less than half of Yahoo's market share and Ask has less than half of MSN's lead, does Google really have a close competitor when it comes to search?
Part of the reason Google rose in popularity against early competitors like Lycos, AltaVista and search engines that got their start years before, is that they delivered a better search experience. Regardless of how long you've been using them as a marketing tool, most people remember clicking through pages of results before getting to one site that satisfied what you were looking for.
While Google continues to grow in popularity as a general search engine, there are still plenty of areas where you have to click through several pages before getting to the information you want. And sometimes, no matter how many words your search includes, or how far down the search tail you go, Google doesn't provide the best search experience.
In a few of these areas, smaller sites have proved their staying power even when Google tried to expand into their territory.
Take shopping. Re-branded as Product Search (formerly Froogle), Google's shopping comparison engine never became a market leader against sites like Shopzilla, Shopping.com and others. Despite placement on the homepage for a period of time, one-box results and many merchants who jumped at the chance to include their products free of charge (most comparison engines charge a fee for inclusion, or serve results on a CPC basis), user response wasn't overwhelming.
Even when you look at maps, which is an area where Google at least has mindshare - thanks to APIs that let sites easily integrate data, they aren't close to the market leader. Mapquest remains on top, with second place going to Yahoo Maps who have less than half the traffic (according to a March comparison from Compete).
Why is this? Everyone will have their own opinion. Mine is that what made Google successful in general search is what makes it weak in other areas. Not all searches are created equal, and individual search engines and vertical sites take advantage of that to deliver a better search experience.
When looking for cheap tickets to Las Vegas in December, Kayak or SideStep give far more relevant information than Google. I can see an actual dollar amount, determine how many layovers or connections I'm willing to endure for cheapness and purchase a ticket.
Going back to a vertical where Google directly competes, I find a search for shoes on ShopStyle a lot easier, and a lot more relevant. I wear a hard to find size, and while a search on Google Product Search serves up children's shoes, men's shoes and styles that I probably won't be looking for until I'm at least 65 - in less time on ShopStyle I found several styles I enjoyed, in my size with no apparent confusion as to my age or gender. When those in the US start their Black Friday shopping, Shopping.com, ShopZilla and several other engines are poised to offer more relevant suggestions than Google with less searching.
While none of these smaller sites or search engines will kill Google, they can at least hold their own and dominate their markets - even when a much larger, better funded competitor enters the ring. As a search marketer, what does it mean for you?
At the end of the day, being in a top position on a major search engine is about the traffic. You make the effort or pay for the clicks because you want to bring in more qualified users who will take a certain action on your site. You want your site products, information and offerings to be found for as many queries as they are relevant to. In more and more verticals, users are showing that the best search engine for that isn't the biggest.
In Part 2 of this post I'll share my personal list of vertical search engines along with how to add your listings to their indices.