There are a number of companies, big and small, trying to build a better search engine. Whether it be vertical search engines, or more general search engines with better algorithms than Yahoo & Google, they all face a big hurdle to success. Simply stated, the hurdle is the near zero marginal cost of doing a search. And the more companies I see the less comfortable I get that any will cross that hurdle.
The promise of vertical search is a good one. If the search engine focused on one sector, such as shopping, blogs, electronics or health, they don't have to crawl the entire web, and focus on much fewer sites and hone their algorithms to deliver more relevant results faster. As a result, the company will attract more relevant ads, therefore both cost per click and click through rates will be higher than others. Eventually, the company will be runaway success, reach out and conquer other verticals, and then eventually take over from Google.
Almost all of these companies, when fundraising, take a keyword, like "digital cameras"or "san francisco" and compare their highly relevant search results with the generic results you get from Google. It looks great. However, what's sorely missed is that when comparing search engines, one should not compare results for a given keyword, but compare the overall cost of finding the information that's desired. If you type the wrong keyword, you may have to refine your search, lengthen the phrase, or reach out to page 2-3-4 of the search results to find what you need. Eventually you find what you think is what you want. It may take 1-2 minutes longer than in vertical search engine, but I claim that that cost is not a big problem for any consumer. Let's test that hypothesis. How many times have you searched something in Google and got frustrated concluding "I just can't find what I need!". I would guess that that is never.
When a user tries a number of keywords or lengthens his/her phrase, what they are effectively doing is adding relevance manually. That is what the vertical search engines try to do for you, but when the cost for the consumer doing it themselves is nearly zero what do they bring to the table? If "soccer" is too generic, try "weekend soccer" or "weekend soccer san francisco", eventually you bring the relevance you are looking for and you do it happily without complaining. So what's the real value proposition for the added relevance from a vertical search engine and how does that compare to the cost of acquiring the users and getting them to your web page routinely? That's the hard question I have not yet seen the answer for.
As long as the cost of doing another search on Google is zero, I see a
difficult time for vertical search engines to keep the relevance edge over
time. I would love to be proven wrong.