Folks from time to time ask me if the game is up, if Google, Yahoo and a few others have locked up search forever. Bah!, I say. Search lives in every corner of the internet, insinuating itself into every fold of discoverable information. There are simply too many folds – large search companies can’t profitably exploit every one of them. Hence the continued rise, in 2004, of the vertical search category. Examples? Sidestep, a travel search site that seems to be gaining traction of late. Why? The company’s core promise to consumers can be found on its site: “SideStep is a search engine – not an online travel agency. ” In other words, you can trust it, as it’s not trying to sell you anything. It’s focused entirely on its mission of finding the best travel deal, as opposed to selling you whatever inventory its partners might want to clear that day.
So what’s the point? Have I fallen in love with Sidestep? No – it’s still fish with feet – requiring you to download a software application that “watches” you do travel searches, then makes better suggestions. But I just love the idea it represents: search is a real time publishing opportunity. You can make a business of solving a person’s ephemeral but specific information problem, addressing a person’s simple but non-trivial query – “What’s the cheapest hotel room in New York right now?” – and make a decent living at it to boot. Obritz, Expedia, Hotels.com – they all claim to do that – but they’re not publishers, they’re agents. Same with so many other first-generation vertical sites – Autobytel comes to mind. My experience is that they are all in the thrall of their partners and their inventory – they are in no way independent. (Just try asking Autobytel this question: “What’s the cheapest Volvo c70 on the Web right now?” They send you to a dealer. Not exactly what you had in mind, eh?) I just love the idea that finding an honest answer to a reasonable question works as a business on the internet. Somehow, it feels like the essence of what publishing on the web can be – impartial (and complete) answers to honest questions. So I root for the Sidesteps of the world. The idea it represents scales to all sorts of opportunities, yet to be discovered.