July 23, 2008

Niche ‘Vertical Sites’ Refine Web Searching

SAN JOSE, Calif. _ Center'd, with its friendly winking apostrophe, seems an apt name for a Silicon Valley start-up with the ambitious goal of becoming the go-to Web site for what it calls "local planning." It bills itself as a useful place for today's harried multi-taskers to become, yes, "centered."

Whether it soars or flops, Center'd represents a twist on a powerful business trend. Dozens of so-called "vertical search" companies have sprung up in a time when Google has firmly established itself as the default go-to-first search engine.

Two years after Merriam-Webster formally recognized "google" as a transitive verb, consumers are recognizing the limitations of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft or Ask.com, whose "horizontal" searches deliver vast breadth of information but not much depth. Increasingly, people are "drilling down" into highly detailed and structured sites like Retrevo for consumer electronics; Trulia and Zillow for real estate; SimplyHired and Indeed for jobs; Kayak, Farechase and Farecast for travel, and so on.

Vertical search has become more popular as the Web grows ever more cluttered with data. The respected Netcraft survey counted more than 173 million Web sites in June _ roughly double the number of two years earlier.

Vertical search sites share a two-step methodology, employing technology that constantly crawls the Web to aggregate relevant information, and then "putting structure on unstructured data," as Retrevo Vice President Robb Lewis puts it.

"There's a realization that there's too much information out there," said Yen Lee, founder and chief executive of Palo Alto, Calif.-based UpTake, another new "vertical" start-up aiming for its own niche in the travel industry. "The key to dealing with the information overload is less about aggregating. The key is to organize it in a way that understands what the consumer is looking for."

Collectively, the vertical sites illustrate how entrepreneurs are trying to harness the Web's stupendous growth _ by cribbing and repurposing information initially collected by other sites.

Individually, the sites offer insights on the Web's role in the global consumer culture.

Consider consumer electronics. Silicon Valley veteran Vipin Jain, former executive at Extreme Networks and Telseon, said his passion for electronic gear led to his recognition that consumers needed a site that would consolidate and make sense of the expanding amount of data on an expanding number of goods. The industry now churns out 20,000 electronic products each year, he said, each with their individual complexities, prices and user reviews.

Retrevo, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., and backed by Alloy Ventures and Norwest Venture Partners, bills itself as a "matchmaking" service for people and electronics. It developed a system that aims to aggregate the data and employs "artificial intelligence" to sort through products and help consumers find best values. A recent deal links Retrevo to PCWorld, enabling readers to compare PCWorld's reviews to those of its rivals.

Similarly, Connecticut-based Kayak was launched in late 2004 as a one-stop search destination for travel information. Its founders included key executives of travel sites Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity, as well as Intuit, with venture funding from Sequoia Capital and Accel Partners. Competing travel search engines also sprouted; one Silicon Valley rival, SideStep, was acquired by Kayak in late 2007 in a deal reportedly valued at $200 million.

By launching UpTake, Lee is betting the travel market has room for another search engine. UpTake's aim is to become the first site people visit when puzzling over vacation plans. It compiles and organizes data about destinations, as well as ratings based on user reviews from TripAdvisor, RealTravel and hundreds of other sites. It makes money through advertising and by providing leads to book travel and lodging at other travel Web sites.

Mountain View, Calif.-based SimplyHired, like Kayak and Retrevo, has established itself as one of the top job sites on the Web, its traffic trailing only such giants as Monster, CareerBuilder and Yahoo HotJobs. By scouring those and other job bulletin boards, as well as company sites, SimplyHired, which launched in 2005, now features more than 6.3 million job listings.

"If you want to find that perfect needle in the haystack, you've got to have the haystack first," said Chief Executive Gautum Godhwani. The only job board SimplyHired doesn't "crawl," Godhwani said, is Craigslist _ at Craigslist's request.

SimplyHired's aim, Godhwani says, is to help people find their "perfect job." It's the only site that could, say, tell an engineer about telecom industry openings within 10 miles of home that would allow him to bring his dog to work.

Now comes Center'd, the "local planning" start-up that might be described as a mash-up of local search, event planning and social networking _ sort of a Web 2.0 version of Evite. Parents planning a children's party, for example, may scout options close to home, read reviews from Yelp and other sites, make reservations and send out invitations.

Very much the start-up, Center'd has an 11-member staff that operates out of a Menlo Park, Calif., incubator. It is led by founder and CEO Jennifer Dulski, a former group vice president at Yahoo, and founder and Chief Technology Officer Chandu Thota. Backers include Norwest and angel investor Bill Harris, former CEO of Intuit and PayPal.

To get the word out, Center'd recently set up a booth at a PTA conference in San Diego. If all goes well, Dulski and Thota said, the Web's self-perpetuating power of "viral marketing" will drive traffic to Center'd _ much as it has for other vertical search leaders.


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