Vertical search & Robertson screwdrivers

by greg on February 20, 2005

Since I work for a vertical search engine, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about searches both vertical and general. Vertical search is a lot like my Robertson-head screwdriver. A Robertson screwdriver is a great piece of Canadian design – Robertson screws have a square identation, not a slot, so your screwdriver can’t slip when you’re turning them. Compared to a Robertson, a Philips-head is strictly second best. However, Robertson screws aren’t standard in America, so my Robertson screwdriver only gets used for specialized tasks.

When I know I’m going to need a Robertson-head screwdriver, I’ll dig it out of my closet and leave my set of interchangeable screwdriver bits behind. In the same way, I’ll go to a vertical search engine instead of Google if I know in advance I’ll be needing one. I’ll use a comparison shopping leads the sector – when pricing a product. I’ll use Technorati when I’m searching the blogosphere. I use Cairo when I’m looking to buy locally, and I’d probably use Indeed or LinkedIn if I was looking for work.

That said, I use my Robertson screwdriver relatively rarely. If I don’t anticipate a need for it, I leave it in my closet, and pick up my bag of screwdriver bits. Those screwdriver bits are like Google. They don’t have the functionality of a Robertson-head screwdriver, but they’re good for most tasks. I use them like I use Google – they’re what I grab when I’m not completely sure what I’m going to end up doing. Often I don’t know where my searching is going to lead me – maybe I’ll be searching for a product, maybe I’ll be searching for a person, maybe I’ll end up searching for essays or reviews or forum discussions. In these cases, I generally start with Google – I figure it’s got the greatest chance of being useful.

Of course, every once in a while I’ll find that my box of screwdriver bits isn’t enough to do what I wanted to do. Say I run into some Robertson-head screws I wasn’t expecting to. When that happens I have to go back to my closet and dig out the more-specialized tool. On the internet, that’s when I switch from Google to a vertical search engine. But going back to get that extra screwdriver out of my closet is a pain, so I’m not going to do it if I can make the tools I’ve got work. If the tool I’ve got with me will do the job well enough, I’m not going to go back for another one, even if it is slightly better. That’s why half the time I’ll wind up jamming a plain slotted screwdriver in the recess of a Robertson screw, and seeing if I can just work it out that way. Sure, it’s a little awkward and less convenient, but why go back for a specialized tool when the one I’ve got is good enough? If Google will do the job, I’m not going to bother with anything else.

For a vertical search engine to succeed, it’s got to give me something I can’t get from the main search engines, something more than just a slight increase in relevancy – if I can do a bit of extra messing about with the tools I’m used to, I’m not going to make the switch. That’s why a vertical search engine has to be manifestly superior to the generals – it’s got to own the category. Recently, Seth Godin wrote that “[y]our first choice is always to be so much better that all the marketing hype is secondary.” For vertical search, it’s not even a choice.

At some point in my career, I want to produce a tool of that caliber – that one special item that sends everyone scampering back to their toolboxes. Trust me on this one – once you’ve put something together with Robertson-head screws, you’ll never buy Philips-head screws again.

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