The race for a better search engine was cast in a different light last week, as analyst David Coursey explored the possibilities of "vertical search", and Wikipedia's position in this area could lead to new competition.
In an opinion column last Thursday on eWeek, "Search Engines Succeed at Stoking Frustration", Coursey comments on his increasing difficulties finding useful answers through Google search results. Taking a cue from another reporter's article about vertical search, he suggests, "Sometimes I also think that for common searches I might be better off with a service that actually involves humans in finding answers online, if any of those still exist."
Vertical search is a term used in a recently-released study from JupiterResearch, referring generally to narrower search engines that are focused on specific categories. It relies less on the web crawler approach used by the broad search engines ("horizontal search"), and could offer an alternative to advertisers dealing with the prices of popular keywords at the big search companies. While the concept is not clearly defined, it seems that hyperlinking is one feature that could easily contribute to the "vertical" aspect.
Coursey specifically mentions Wikipedia twice in his analysis, saying that this kind of service "is not too far off the Wikipedia track." Although he doesn't mention the discussions of Google hosting Wikipedia — he might not know about it, or may consider it too speculative to comment on — the negotiations are interesting to consider as a possible alliance between horizontal and vertical search.
In discussing the concept, Coursey considers Wikipedia in tandem with About.com, as if the two would be natural competitors in this field. This view takes the place of the more traditional perspective of Wikipedia as simply an encyclopedia, with the Encyclopædia Britannica as its natural competitor. Worth noting is that while Wikipedia has long ago surpassed Britannica in terms of Alexa traffic rankings, About.com remains ahead of Wikipedia by a decent margin.
Another interesting consideration is the fact that The New York Times announced on 17 February that it would purchase About.com from its previous owner PRIMEDIA, a magazine publishing company, for 410 million dollars (US). Google along with Yahoo!, Ask.com, and AOL were reportedly among the other bidders.
Some reports saw this as the New York Times' strategy to get into the blogging world, characterizing About.com as analogous to a network of 500 bloggers. Doing the math this way, reviews were mixed as to whether the price paid ($820,000 per "blog") was possibly too steep.
The cost of doing business in this area was one issue debated at the recent Harvard conference on blogging and journalism (see archived story), as more traditional media consider how to react to the blogging phenomenon. The conference included a heated discussion involving Jill Abramson, managing editor of the Times, and Dave Winer over the importance of having a media organization with the resources to fund a bureau in Baghdad, as compared to a blog network.
At one point, Jimmy Wales chimed in to mention how Wikipedia had come up with a product that could compete with the Encyclopædia Britannica, with its multimillion-dollar budget, while spending a fraction of the amount. While a simple analogy might tie this to Wikinews as a developing project that can compete with other news organizations, the possibility also exists of news companies expanding in ways that compete with the Wikimedia Foundation's other projects. With the Times' purchase of About.com, Wikipedia may also be moving closer toward head-to-head competition with media organizations.