Before I joined Lightspeed I was General Manager of Netscape, where I was responsible for the portal and the browser. Search drove about half of Netscape’s revenues and so I spent a fair amount of time trying to understand how to best monetize search traffic.
In fact, around 20% of searches are “navigational” in nature – users looking for a particular website. Another 50% of searches are “informational” in nature (e.g. “capital of Taiwan”, “top social networks”) and the remaining 30% are “transactional” in nature (e.g. “cheap flights to Orlando”, “flat screen TV”. These stats come from an IBM research paper from 2002 that defines a taxonomy of web search, but the ratios were still roughly accurate as of 2006 when Gina Winkler, the outstanding woman who ran Netscape’s search team, left the company. [NB Netscape's search is now largely a re-skinned version of Google, a very different product to what it used to be]
It is relatively difficult to monetize navigational and informational searches. Try searches for “amazon” or “specific gravity of lead” and you won’t see any sponsored links. All the monetization comes from the transactional searches. Look at the huge number of sponsored links for searches on “ipod“, “rowing machines” or “disneyland hotels” in comparison.
So a new search company’s ability to monetizing search depends largely on what percentage of its search volume is transactional. For some of the new vertical search sites, this percentage can vary dramatically.
Take people search for example. A search on “jeremy liew” in Google yields no sponsored links (although before Ebay cut back its spending on Google there used to be an ad for “Great deals on jeremy liew at Ebay”!). In general, people search is informational. The proportion of transactional searches will likely be lower than general search. This is something that companies like Wink and Spock will need to take into account as they develop their business models.
Conversely, sites focused on shopping search will have a very high proportion of transactional queries. The first generation of comparison shopping engines such as Shopping.com, Shopzilla built valuable businesses on much lower traffic than the big general search engines because almost every query is monetizable. This bodes well for the next generation of shopping search engines including companies such as Shopwiki, The Find (a Lightspeed portfolio company), and Krillion.
Similar analyses can be conducted on other vertical search engines in areas such as local, travel, video and health – some of these will have a much higher proportion of transactional searches than others.
Semantic search startups propose to do a better job on informational search than the current search engines. If they see a greater proportion of informational searches because of this, then they may in fact monetize at a lower rate than today’s search engines.
Search is a tough business because of the need to change customer habits and pull search share away from today’s big branded search engines. If a new search engine does not monetize well because of its mix of queries, it has even more work to do.