Update – A few readers pointed out that the Alexa stats for some of the sites here look a lot stronger if you take a U.S. rank as opposed to a global rank. This is especially true for Trulia, Yelp, Kayak, and Indeed. It’s a point worth noting.
I have been doing a lot of thinking about vertical search engines lately, especially because I find them to be very useful in getting information in categories where general search doesn’t always give me the right answer right away. As useful as vertical search engines can be, I often wonder whether any of these vertical search engines are garnering enough traffic to be viable standalone properties.
Why does this question matter? Well, from my point of view it looks like vertical search sites who can’t generate enough organic traffic of their own through SEO, other techniques that will drive higher organic search results in Google or Yahoo, or having a great destination site that brings users directly to the front door will be destined to be in the “powered by” category offering white label syndicated solutions to partners. I don’t want to denegrate the “powered by” model — it has made a ton of money for Google and its partners and is an effective way to distribute great technology. However, given the amount of venture capital invested in this sector, my hunch is that investors are looking for ways to build meaningful, standalone companies who can be destinations of their own given that very few vertical search engines have been acquired in the web 2.0 world (I am excluding all of the web 1.0 comparison shopping and job sites that got acquired).
In order to answer this question of whether vertical search sites are stalling out in their eventual aim to become destination sites of their own, I took a look at some Alexa data on some of the most prominent vertical search sites. Yes, I realize that Alexa data is imperfect, skewed, etc. That being said, it’s publicly available and easy to access. I took a look at the Alexa ranking for as many vertical search sites as I could think of and took note of their current Alexa ranking. The next step was to then bucket them into categories (top 500, top 1000, and top 10000). The results of this mini-exercise can be seen below.
If you don’t want to scroll down, here’s the punchline — only two “web 2.0” vertical search properties cracked the Alexa Top 1,000. Yes 1,000 is an arbitrary number to choose. Yes Alexa data is iffy. But with all of those things in mind, we are only talking about 2 companies (of the 12 I found in the top 1,000) who made that cutoff.
Looking at this data tells me two really important things. First, it is really hard to build a vertical search engine that gets significant amounts of traffic. Looking at the clustering of sites that managed to crack the top 10,000 shows a serious weighting toward sites where the underlying topic of interest (travel, product comparison, jobs and recruiting) is a market where significant amounts of money change hands.
The other major thing I take away from this data is that more and more vertical search engines ought to be looking to “power” the search of other folks unless they have some really clever ways to generate organic traffic — it’s really hard to become a highly ranked vertical search property.
Feel free to leave me a comment or point me toward any search property I might have missed.
Raw Data Appendix Below (Global Alexa Rank as of March 19, 2007)
In the Alexa Top 500
In the Alexa Top 1,000
In the Alexa Top 10,000