Businesses that offer poor search features -- or none at all -- may be missing out on more than they think. In the last three months of 2005, visitors to e-commerce sites who used those sites' search boxes were 2.7 times more likely to buy something than average visitors, according to a study released in January by WebSideStory, an online marketing firm.
You often see sites offering search boxes that are powered by giants such as Google and Yahoo. These boxes usually have only two options: "Search This Site" and "Search the Web."
I wrote last week about Eurekster, Rollyo, and other companies that are providing a third alternative. The differences between the approaches of these two startups are important in determining which of them, if any, your company should consider using.
A Directory of Search Innovation
Eurekster hosts "swickis" (search wikis), search engines you create that adjust their results based on the links clicked most often by visitors. Rollyo (roll your own) produces its own competing search engines, which are called Rollyos, with input boxes that can appear anywhere on your site.
Both methods allow you to create search boxes that search only your site, the entire Web, or yet another choice: a selection of other sites that you consider to be the best authorities on your given topic.
Each company's technology has its own strengths and weaknesses:
Swickis: subdirectories. Eurekster allows you to target your searches to as precise a location as a single subdirectory of a Web site. You'll get more relevant results in a search engine on politics, for example, if you include just cnn.com/politics than if you include all of cnn.com.
Rollyo: no subdirectories. Targeting less than an entire site in a Rollyo isn't yet possible; you must choose to include an entire site or none of it. In an interview, Rollyo CEO and founder Dave Pell said allowing users to select individual subdirectories of a site is "something we plan to add." (By contrast, subdomains, such as support.apple.com, can be specified in a Rollyo today.)
How Much Influence to Give Others
Another major area in which the two technologies differ is in the degree that you can allow visitors and collaborators to affect the results of any engines you create:
Swickis: collaboration and "learning." Swickis automatically re-order their search results after several users have indicated by their clicks which hits are most relevant. Eurekster is also working on options that will let the creator of a swicki empower others to add additional sites to be indexed. The company, however, has already had to add better controls to keep visitors from manipulating the "most frequent searches" feature of swickis. Giving creators instead of visitors the final word on which terms will appear in this list, says Grant Ryan, co-founder and chief scientist of Eurekster, is now necessary and "an inevitable part of [defending] things that are successful on the Web."
Rollyo: more control for the creator. "Our model is completely different," says Pell. Instead of developing ways for visitors to influence a search engine's results, "our search engine is all about narrowing down your results to the sources you know and trust." The company plans to add a "group roll," which will allow a Rollyo creator to add several other administrators, he says. "But you have to approve the people before they can participate."
Hosted Here or Hosted There
A big difference between the two offerings involves whether the search engine's input box appears on your company's site or on a hosted page:
Swickis: hosted there. At this time, sites with fewer than 50,000 page views per day must create search boxes that are hosted on Eurekster's own domain. For example, the creator of a search engine about iPods might send visitors to a search box at ipod1-swicki.eurekster.com. This is necessary, Ryan says, because many swickis attract more traffic than all the other pages of a blog combined. Eurekster provides the bandwidth to keep all the various search engines going. Larger companies can inquire about Eurekster's new SearchPublisher offering.
Rollyo: hosted anywhere. You, as the creator of a Rollyo, can add its search box anywhere on your Web site by pasting in a few lines of HTML code that are automatically generated for you. The search results page is always hosted on some variation of rollyo.com. But Rollyo sometimes is willing to customize the search results page to show logos or other material from sites it wants to partner with, Pell says.
This customization ability is one of the most intriguing aspects of Rollyo. To fully appreciate it, let's take a quick look at three examples of sites that take advantage of this kind of specialized search.
Another Dimension for Niche Sites
MicroPersuasion.com is the blog of Steve Rubel, an Internet marketing and p.r. consultant. In the right-hand column, his site bears a typical Google "Search the Web/Search This Blog" input box. Just above that, however, is a Rollyo search box. This allows you to search a set of more than a dozen sites Rubel considers authoritative in marketing news. Like all Rollyo search results, you can see the sites the creator has selected. Clicking the name of a site narrows your search to that site alone. The results page has been customized by Rollyo technical staff to include Rubel's name and a small photo.
ParentHacks.com is a vast collection of tips on caring for bundles of joy of all ages. This site has customized its search box to dispense with the Rollyo logo entirely (although the word appears in small type). You can use ParentHacks' input box to search the site, the entire Web, or what the site calls "favorite parenting sites." This leads you to a page of results from a number of other sites that ParentHacks.com considers worthy of a visit.
News search is a feature that Rollyo personnel themselves developed to show the power of their specialized search technology. From Rollyo's home page, select the "Explore" link. Click "Top News," then type in a current topic. The results page shows the top hits from 10 news sites as well as a list of stories posted about the topic in the last 24 to 48 hours or so.
These are all fascinating glimpses of what imaginative people can do with specialized search. At the same time, it's important to note the limitations these services have. I disclosed in my previous column that I started my own specialized search engine in early 2003 called WinFind, which searches 15 authoritative sources for Windows tips and tricks. This is powered by WebSideStory Search, a Fortune 500-oriented service that allows page-level index tuning and many other features that swickis and Rollyos don't support.
Proof of Darwinian Evolution
It's ironic that the leaders of both Eurekster and Rollyo discussed a few years back the possibility of investing together in the very early stages of these search technologies.
"We met several times," says Rollyo's Pell. "I think we couldn't agree on terms or something." Eurekster's Ryan confirmed to me the general outline of this backstory.
Both companies are now on a roll (no pun intended), but it's intriguing to think what might have been. A company that combined the strengths of both swickis and Rollyos would have a daunting product, indeed.
In the meantime, your company may be able to take advantage of one or both of the services. The offerings are mostly free at this point, and they even promise users some advertising-supported revenue sharing in the months to come. (Both companies prominently display the word "beta" on their sites, which are still in a stage of furious development.)
If you offer the right search features, your visitors just might find what they're looking for on your site instead of someplace else on the Net.