Google to Launch Vertical Search Engine in a Box

July 17, 2007

Almost a month ago I was fortunate to be invited to help with the development of a brand new product which will be launched by Google tomorrow (July 17th, 2007). The Custom Search Business Edition (CSBE) will have a massive impact on the search engine community. We’ve read so much recently about various vertical search engines popping up all over the place and now Google has come up with their own “build a vertical” toolkit which should smash the vertical search market.

Example CSBE Website:
The new CSBE can be viewed on the top right corner of the Holiday Home Rental website run by Holiday Home Rentals, LLC. HolidayHomeRental.co.uk currently has 25,000 holiday rental homes represented by over 150,000 pages of mostly user-generated content. Vacationers looking for rental homes, search the website, find properties and submit enquiries directly to the homeowners.
The Google CSBE allows our users to search for things like “2 bedroom cottage in Cornwall near Newquay” or “1 bed apartment in Hyde Park” instead of being constrained to key database fields which require more precise search criteria.

We have been live with the new Google search for over a week now and have witnessed immediate and significant results. The number of referrals generated to our home owners has increased by approximately 30% and at the same time, the number of customer service requests has also significantly decreased. The results have been overwhelming. The newly implemented Google search tool enriches the users experience by giving them the power to simply think and type their search parameters which propels them to a more accurate and meaningful result set.

Setup and Configuration
It took just under one minute to build a search engine for my 150,000+ page Holiday Home Rentals website. A few hours later, the Holiday Home Rental template had been applied and was presented with Google quality search results in the Holiday Home Rental branding with zero banners (unlike the free Google Custom Search Engine (CSE)).

That last point is key to the CSBE. Like the Google mini search appliance, the CSBE has many features, one of the most significant being able to display search results without banners. We pay a lot of money for banners and can’t afford to have visitors click away after they’ve finally landed on our site. The CSBE enables business owners to do this.
Price Plan

  • 5,000 pages = $100 per year
  • 50,000 pages = $500 per year
  • 1 million pages = $15,000 per year

Compare this to the Google mini which costs $3000 per 100,000 pages and it is a pretty good deal. The big difference in the two is where the index is housed. The CSBE relies solely on the Google index and if your content is not in there, then it will not appear in the search results. For the more established sites, this shouldn’t be too much of a concern as Google would typically be grabbing fresh content on a regular basis (especially if you’re taking advantage of the sitemaps to let Google know which content has been updated and when).

Additional Functionality:
The Holiday Home Rentals site contains mostly user-generated content. However, we differentiate between properties based on several factors, one of which is the quality of the listing. The CSBE will allow you to boost the results of different parts of your website using URL patterns so you can more broadly give higher weighting to certain sections of the site instead of individually trying to tune search results based on keyword. While the waiting is good, it doesn’t solve the problem of showcasing the property results differently based on the level of our “property points”. Fortunately Google thought of a way around this. Using the search API, we are able to use the business search account and get the results back as an array rather than preformatted HTML as we have it now (formatted by Google). Which means we are able to look up the results before displaying them, and see which were gold, platinum or had the highest property point values. We are then able to give them a different treatment in the result list. For example, make them bigger or bolder, give them a background to make them standout, show the number of stars, or even just show the property photo etc.

Of course if we wanted to, we could even manipulate the results. For example, if the 1000th result was a platinum sponsor we could optionally bring that result to position number one (using the array method). Although this would have a direct impact on the search result relevancy it could be useful in some instances. A more typical use for this is taking each page of 10 results and perhaps changing the order of each page vs. changing the order of the entire result set. This way you are ‘tweaking’ the relevancy a little while striking a nice compromise with your site’s key sponsors/partners.

Meta Tags (advanced stuff)
A much easier way to do the above would be if Google included meta tag info in their GWebResult object. Using the Google Search API you can set the CSS class for the results of an entire search, using GSearch.setUserDefinedClassSuffix. In other words, all results of this search would have the given CSS styles applied. We’ve suggested to Google that the value of the CSS class come from a meta tag in the source. For example, the higher ranked properties could be tagged with:

META NAME=”Rating” VALUE=”Highest”

And the Google generates HTML results could add “Highest” to the class name of each result that had the tag. If a different property was rated well, but not as well, it would have:

META NAME=”Rating” VALUE=”High”

And that CSS class would highlight it, but not as much.

The basic idea would be to add META tag info to website pages to indicate some value i.e. rating etc. and, if Google included the meta data in their results objects, we could easily use that to change the treatment of the search results thru CSS. This is the same as described above, but would be much more efficient.

META tags could be used to much greater effect if the Google business search used them, similar to how the Google search appliance does. The CSBE doesn’t support this at the moment, but the Google development team has indicated they like the idea and will consider it for future development.

Effect on Google Search Results
While I’ve seen no impact on my search engine placement in this short period of time, I have noticed a quicker than normal response from the Googlebot to recently added content. It could just be a coincidence but might be something to look out for.

Social Media Opportunities
I’ve been trying to think of ways in which we might be able to use the CSBE for social media. We could certainly add an AJAX based rating system next to all of the results or perhaps add a “Add to Favorites” etc. since we can format the results out of the array. I have a feeling there are a lot of opportunities around this – just need to figure them out.

Vertical Portal Opportunities
With an attractive price tag of $100 for 5,000 pages, it makes you wonder if there are suddenly going to be new vertical search engines popping up all over the place. For example, if I were interested in “Travel in the Lake District”, I could find what I think are the best websites, filter out the non-relevant pages using the filter tools and then create a CSBE generated search engine for just the filtered pages of the approved sites. While vertical search engines are not new, they have never been this easy or this cheap to setup and customize before.

Authored by:
Andy Steggles
President
Holiday Home Rental, LLC
www.holidayhomerental.co.uk

[From Google Website]
Business Edition overview
With Custom Search Business Edition you’ll enjoy these additional features and support to help you integrate Google search into your website:
Ads-free results pages
Ads do not appear alongside search results, so you can keep traffic on your website.

XML feed of search results
Use this raw XML feed of search results to integrate search results with your website’s look and feel.

Customizable search results
Through the XML feed, you can reorder search results as you see fit.

Google branding optional
You have the option of whether to brand your search engine as being powered by Google.

Email support
Google will provide access to help center and e-mail support for paying customers on a 24 x 7 basis. Standard Support requests are responded to with a target initial response time of one business day during Business Hours only. Service Unusable Requests are responded to 24 x 7 with a target initial response time of one hour. Phone support is also available for an additional fee.

Easy payment with Google Checkout
Custom Search Business Edition costs $100 per year for websites with less than 5,000 web pages, and $500 per year for websites between 5,000 and 50,000 web pages. Payments are made through Google Checkout, and payments do not automatically bill each year.

Custom Search Business Edition Screen Shot
(click to see the full screen view with the link to the business edition)
Google Custom Search Business Edition Screen Shot

Free Search vs. Custom Search Comparison
(click to see the full screen view with the link to the business edition)
Side by Side Comparison for Free vs. Business Search


First SES Conference (2006 Chicago)

December 24, 2006

I’ve just attended my first SES (Search Engine Strategies) conference in Chicago and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was really great to get to meet the search gurus as well as the major search engine players. A special thank you goes out to the Googlies for taking suggestions for improvements of their phenomenal webmaster tools. Also, welcome to Trevor (from Google) who attended his first SES conference also (sorry for hounding you, but 10 out of 10 for not giving anything away… obviously need more beer next time). Vanessa Fox (the brilliant (and very nice) webmaster tools project owner/manager), as a friendly reminder, this is what I think would be a great addition:

  • “My URLs are case sensitive:” with a ” o Yes o No ” option. (and Yes Adam, I promise to only use lower case going forward).
  • New tool for specifying “hey, these are all my new URLs, please get rid of any others for this domain which are not in this list.”
  • Header checker. In a similar fashion to how you have the robots.txt checker, offer a url entry tool which will return the header value. While this feature is available on other websites, it would be cool to not have to go elsewhere.
  • Header download. Would be great to have a download tool for all urls for myDomain and their associated header value.
  • Page rank summaries. Create a tool similar to my sitePRtracker.com (whoops, there’s that case sensitivity again) which shows the summary of PR Values for a website. Not just the “top ranking page” (which never seems correct – yes, yes, I know… yours is more up to date) but a simple break down of how many of each of the 10 page rank values the site has, with a total page rank score (sum of all values). For now, please will have to use my free tool at www.sitePRtracker.com (subtle plug – but it’s free, so why not?)

I also wanted to thank Local Search for their fantastic party (definitely the best one I think) and was a ton of fun. The band was awesome. If I had to pick one, my only complaint for the $2K (per attendee) conference is the abysmal food at lunch… come on SES, sort it out. The pretzel on the last day was the icing on the cake (if only there was a cake).

My only suggestion for improvement would be to video each session next time which can then be made available to all paid attendees after the conference. There were so many great sessions; it was just frustrating having to choose one over the other and not knowing what you missed. Yes SES, I realize video production is costly, but even if it was just sound and the slides or something… I’m sure there would be plenty of sponsors out there willing to help?

I almost forgot to mention the Yahoo party with their Yahootinis (cute). The band rocked (literally) and as this video will show “Bill Gates” should have been paid for the entertainment! Very funny…

If there is one thing which I learned at the conference, it is how valuable “Social Media” can be and how anyone with any interest in SEM should have a thorough understanding of it. As a result I’m now at the airport waiting for my flight and am just about to post this to my new (and first) webpress blog. Let’s see how it goes😉

Stay in touch everyone and if anyone has any feedback on the free sitePRtracker.com tool, please let me know. Also, let me know if you think of another cool tool you want and can’t find it out there, as I enjoy building them.

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Microsoft’s Next Social Failure and Another Missed Opportunity?

December 9, 2006

With the incredible brain power Microsoft employs, I can’t help but think they are really lagging from the innovation perspective. They continually miss incredible opportunities to dominate. Not least in the search engine space but also the social networking scene.

One of its latest missed opportunities is with Internet Explorer 7’s lack of social networking integration. We have clearly seen the success of social bookmarking, so why didn’t the company which is massive market domination at least offer users the option of integrating their favorites into a social networking tool? With the web 2.0 now among us, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture an Ajax enabled browser silently checking with Microsoft’s web services to ensure the user’s favorites are in sync. In much the way Outlook syncs when users next connect to the web, so would the windows mobile technology.

Since IE is embedded into most of the world’s operating systems, it could suddenly be the most powerful social networking and measurement tool of them all.

While at the closing session of the SES conference, I posed this thought to Dave Naylor, the SEO guru from bronco.com. Dave seemed to think they wouldn’t go that way since Google already had online bookmarks etc. However, I’m not sure I agree, since the Google toolbar requires manual installation (usually) and is not as seamless and integrated as IE’s favorites.

Suppose for a moment that you tie in the possibility of Microsoft adding an embedded (optional for the privacy freaks) sync function into their browser. Microsoft still has the opportunity to not just catch up, but dominate the social bookmarking arena.

There are also obvious implications for their search engine. Everyone knows what a big deal people make of Google’s page ranking system, Microsoft would suddenly have a social networked page ranking system which could be available to anyone who hasn’t opted-out.

We all know how successful the social votes of confidence from websites like Delicious have been, so imagine taking that a step further and making it part of the operating system?

The convergence of SaaS (Software as a Service) and desktop computing is upon us. This could be a great example of how Microsoft accepts the SaaS competition and embraces the new opportunities it offers.


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