Type in “seal” on Yahoo or Google, and you’re likely to get results ranging from Navy SEALs to marine mammals. But if you’re a business looking for industrial seals, it might take a while to find relevant results.
That’s what business-to-business (B2B) vertical search engines are all about: allowing companies to search for products and partners on a search engine designed just for them, experts explain. “It’s a vertical search engine like Google, but filters have been added to give a specific context to the search,” explains Guy Maser, senior vice president of marketing with GlobalSpec, a B2B search engine designed for engineers and scientific users. “When you search for ‘seal,’ you get industrial seal.”
The opportunities for B2B vertical search in many sectors remain relatively untapped, but they are clearly there, experts say. Outsell Inc., a Burlingame, Calif.-based research firm specializing in the publishing and education sectors, estimates that the market for B2B vertical search could grow to $1 billion in North America alone by 2009. Meanwhile, a China-specific B2B site, Alibaba.com, is already worth as much as $10 billion in market capital.
“Everybody goes to Alibaba…. It has 90 percent market share in China,” notes Mark Cordover, CEO of IT.com, an IT-sector B2B search engine. And here in the U.S., Cordover says, the need for an IT space alone that provides context, news and peer networking is “enormous.” Meanwhile, GlobalSpec’s Maser reports that the site has grown by over 50 percent annually in each of the last five years.
Contextual searching: just the beginning
If the idea of a B2B search engine calls to mind a sector-specific online phone book, you’re on the wrong track, experts say. A contextual search engine is only part of the value added at GlobalSpec and sites like it. Visitors can key in product specs and search the product catalogs of over 128,000 suppliers. They can read newsletters tailored to their exact business needs, learn of trade shows, and access the “CR4” social networking site for engineering/science professionals. Combining context, news and community, says Maser, “is our view of vertical search.”
IT.com’s Cordover agrees. “This is not a pay-to-play model…. We are trying to give visitors community, news, and relevant searches,” he says.
“There may be some overlap between directories and B2B vertical search engines, but a directory is the most limited and primitive form of bringing businesses together,” explains Chuck Richard, vice president and lead analyst of Outsell. “A good vertical provides news and much more…. It’s not just a look-up device.” Richard adds that directories that only list paying companies “will not be successful.” The better model, he says, is like Google’s, where there is some information about every vendor, but expanded information about those that have purchased ads.
B2B verticals could grow even faster, Outsell’s Richard observes, if they coached their advertisers — sometimes small, niche providers — on how to polish up their websites so that prospective clients can easily find the information they came for. “The pages have to match the search terms, or the sale opportunity will be lost,” Richard says. “Sometimes you see this, where the search engine drops you into a really poorly designed home page.”
Pricier ads reach optimal market
Generally, ads placed on B2B search engines are pricier than those placed on Yahoo or MSN, but those ads are reaching a highly targeted market. ‘The more targeted and niched the market, the more people are willing to pay,” says Outsell’s Richard.
At GlobalSpec, advertisers can take out pay-per-click ads, but most opt for ads running between $2,000 and $10,000 to appear in the site’s many tailored newsletters. “Those who pay in this range get ads that really establish them in this market,” Maser says.
The future looks bright for B2B, Maser says, especially in those sectors that can present something unique to their potential users: and stay a step ahead of the big search engines. “Google, Yahoo and others are still trying to find ways to offer more refined contextual search, so you can’t count them out as competitors,” notes Maser.
SIDEBAR: Players in the B2B Vertical Space
While there are potentially hundreds of B2B vertical search engines, here are some to watch:
GlobalSpec – The engineering/scientific sector search engine boasts a spec-checker, news and a social networking site.
ThomasNet.com – This industrial products site features access to news as well as industry-specific searches.
EDN.com – Owned by Dutch publishing giant Reed/Elsevier, this electronics design site features a search engine, news, and “strategy.” Its engine is powered by Zibb, which also powers other sector-specific Reed/Elsevier sites.
IT.com – An IT-based site that allows searches of companies, webcasts, and news.
Zoominfo.com – A site for corporate recruiters/job hunters, it features corporate profiling, individual profiling, and job listings.