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Verticals and Content Engines: The Next Generation of Searching
GUEST COLUMN by Steve Matthews - May 5, 2000

Directions For Internet Searching: (1) Go to appropriate portal web site. (2) Enter keyword terms. (3) Begin to drill down through 47 million web pages.

Overly simplistic? Yes. And a little over the top? Yes, but the web searching process has gotten no easier over the past few years. Have a little hope though, things are going in the right direction.

The Bloated Engine?

There is little doubt that the number of indexed pages on the search engines has become unwieldy. Those that laughed at the 47 million number above can try searching for "business" on Altavista and get back to the rest of the group later.

This situation gets even more puzzling when one considers the continued criticisms of the search engines for only indexing 20% of the available pages on the net, or 25%, or 30%… The search engines should be indexing fewer pages, not more.

So where are these universal finding tools going wrong? There’s probably no one answer, but some possibilities that should be considered are as follows:

  1. The lack of any formal "Collection Policy". Search engines will index anything and everything submitted to them, which has made them the freebee marketing tool of the new millennium. There’s nothing wrong with free, but if Libraries can have adequate collection criteria for their collection development, so can the search engines. The "everything’s accepted" approach has created unnecessary bulk to the search collections.

  2. The lack of "Human Indexing". Technology is great, but unless the general population is willing to take the time to master "Boolean Operators", the best methodology available is going to be plain old human classification. The addition of applied keyword categories (a.k.a. "a controlled vocabulary") would help this system, but the combination of the "web page free-for-all" and keyword searching has not been an effective.

  3. No focus on Subject or Audience. Search engines are collecting on all subjects for all people; hence the global popularity and huge market caps, but also, hence the searcher’s frustration. Massive reductions in "collection noise" (read: useless links) can be achieved by collecting for a particular audience’s needs, and reducing the subject matter of the collection.

Enter The Vertical Engine

If one views Internet Searching as an evolutionary process, the progress from Search Engine to Searchable Directory was a step in the right direction. I’m old enough in web years to remember the word of mouth "buzz" that Yahoo! caused when it first arrived. Lycos was king, and the "knowledge structure" approach Yahoo provided seemed so much easier (to me, anyway).

The evolution has now continued with the addition of Subject Specific Collections or "Verticals". Sites like, VerticalNet, and to some degree the Open Directory Project.

These sites have taken the emphasis off of being all things to all people, and placed the focus on collecting for a single subject, and in some cases, a specific audience. Another important addition for the Verticals is the use of "Editors" and "Guides." Editors represent the first foray into the area of subject expertise. Now, there is an obvious critique regarding the use of untrained editors, but the combination of expertise with "human indexing" represents a marked improvement in the overall collection technique.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The searchable collection of the future will inevitably have more requirements for content inclusion. Many of the coming trends will likely mirror the theory of "Library Science" and how paper based collections are developed today. Some of the possibilities may include:

  1. Proactive Collection Development: Search Sites will actively develop their collections rather than passively waiting for content submissions.

  2. A formal Collection Policy: will be posted and adhered to in defining submission and selection criteria. Content can still be used as a marketing tool, but the free-for-all has to stop.

  3. A Chosen Audience: Picking an audience and sticking with that audience will enable Web Sites to narrow the amount and quality of available content. A properly profiled audience may also be the "marketable" site of the future.

  4. Format Limitations: Sites may choose to collect content that meets a certain "structural format" such as short stories of more than 1500 words, or "subject format" such as a collection of legal contracts and agreements .

From the larger perspective, I suspect that the larger Portals will become the "entry level tools" of future searching. While the Portals become the hubs of commerce and distribution centers of breaking news, the content searching function may become less important in the overall business model (if it hasn’t already). Add to that mix - content distribution deals, meta-searching, and a number of large commerce-centric portal-plays by even larger multinational corporations, and the future looks like a lot of fun.

Steve Matthews is the founder of – The Business Publications Search Engine , a Professional Librarian, and has held many Internet related consulting and implementation positions. On the ‘Net since 1994, Steve is an avid follower of Search Engine trends and business models. Comments and questions can be forwarded to


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