The rise of vertical search engines

The rise of vertical search engines

30-second summary:

  • The rise of Google as the dominant search engine has left the industry undisturbed for 20 years.
  • The number of use cases for search is infinite, which means that in some cases, Google’s information is not deep enough.
  • Vertical search engines support unique workflows and offer domain know-how.
  • The specialized search for consumers is well established, but B2B search is growing rapidly due to a “digital exhaust” effect.
  • The B2B search promotes SMEs and medium-sized companies as more companies are found.

On October 20, 2020, the Justice Department sued Google, a subsidiary of Alphabet, alleging the company’s internet search platform was an illegal monopoly that harms both competition and consumers. The case aims to prove that Google’s position as the dominant search provider limits consumer choice and partnerships with companies like Apple stifle competition. The takeover of Big Tech has been an important pillar in national talks since the 2016 presidential election. However, this is the first antitrust action taken against Google. While we may not get to the end of this story for years, the DOJ’s suit signals a major shift in the search industry that hasn’t been disrupted in over 20 years. The unintended consequence of Google’s conquest of broadening the search is of limited depth for some. Companies tend to be more affected than consumers because of the ranking of the results. As a result of Google’s antitrust proceedings, a new market for specialized information has emerged.

Switching dynamics

In 1998, Google processed 10,000 searches a day – roughly 3.65 million a year. The official Google Zeitgeist reported 1.2 trillion searches in 2012, the year it was published. This trend would ultimately stabilize at an estimated 2.3 trillion searches per year in 2020.

Despite its size and rapid growth, the momentum of web search has gradually shifted. Google has taken a super aggregator and partnership approach in many growing industries. For example, Google Maps aggregates, TripAdvisor and Yelp. Google Shopping and Google Finance are aggregators for e-commerce and financial information, respectively. Vertical search has always been at odds with aggregators that wanted to be found but also wanted direct traffic. Vertical search engines have developed their own mobile apps to lure users away from the Google search bar.

Define vertical search engine

A vertical search engine is a search engine that focuses on a specific domain or vertical. Think LinkedIn for people hunt, Zillow for house hunt, or Kayak for travel hunt. Using a vertical search engine has the following advantages:

  1. More detailed information due to the limited scope
  2. Calibrated systems to provide vertical expertise to users
  3. Specially designed to simplify a specific task or workflow

The third point is particularly noteworthy, especially when comparing vertical search engines to Google. You’re unlikely to be looking for car prices and inventory for fun. The price tells you whether you can afford it; Location information tells you where the nearest dealership is. The search is part of a workflow. In most cases, Google acts as an intermediary and guides users from point A to point B.

Like web search, vertical search supports various workflows. When they differ, users are given both the path and the tools to take an intended action. Here’s an example: Zillow users first search for homes and weigh data on property prices and taxes against other factors like school districts and proximity to work. The user’s workflow ends with an appointment for an open day with the listing agent. The workflows vary greatly depending on your needs, which is why the market for vertical search engines is so large.

For the past few years, Google has tried to compete with certain consumer search workflows. Google Flights, a kayak competitor, brings users closer to booking travel on one platform. Interestingly, Google’s 2011 purchase of ITA Travel (which became Google Flights) was reviewed and approved by the DOJ. Surely, if history is a lesson, Google is able to compete with certain vertical search engines and gain market share for consumer-centric search. Business-to-business search, however, is a different ball game.

The need for B2B search tools

There is a gap in the B2B search market. The gap is partly due to the design of the Google search algorithm, which rates websites based on five key factors. You can find the most popular business websites, but not every business website. More importantly, the results may not produce the right deal.

However, B2B search is beginning to change. The amount of digital emissions has increased dramatically in recent years. The advent of Shopify, Squarespace, and others has lowered the barrier to entry for businesses on the Internet. In 2014, the internet passed a billion websites and two billion are within reach. Having a website is one thing, but being found is another. Businesses need to invest in website tools and resources and consistently optimize the website content. Not to mention, it takes time to gain domain authority. If you are a small business in a constrained economy this seems like a big challenge.

Google’s ranking algorithms, restricted workflows and information at the surface level offer B2B search engines the opportunity to use several functions. For example, ThomasNet ( is an industrial procurement platform that connects procurement professionals and industrial manufacturers. Drugdu ( operates medical device databases that provide access to over 1,000,000 products.

Given that COVID-19 is so targeting small businesses this year, it should be noted that B2B search products are good for SMBs and therefore good for business. Tools like ThomasNet and Drugdu level the playing field so small businesses can be found. Information is also usually more trustworthy as it generally does not advertise and crowdsourced information reduces reliance on individual company databases.

The big picture

The last antitrust case against a large technology company was in 1998, when Microsoft was finally found guilty of abuse of monopoly power. Over the past two decades, Google has emerged as the clear leader in consumer search, but they have failed to expand their reach to include vertical search engines. That void has since been filled with dozens of specialized search engines, platforms that primarily benefit small to medium-sized businesses. The advantages for the user are obvious: Concentrating on a limited set of data speeds up work processes and provides better information. As the Google saga unfolds, vertical search engines are well positioned to grow by facilitating business-to-business trading.

Andrew Bocskocsky is a software expert, CEO and co-founder of the B2B search engine Grata.