As the top-tier search engine have ramped up their efforts in the field of vertical search, the only vertical search markets that are worth entering into are niches within greater verticals. Well, it seems that the creators of WineSearcher have set their sights on precisely such a search vertical. They’re pursuing the wine niche within the larger vertical of shopping. This is a niche characterized by a particularly passionate user-base and, therefore, represents a potential lucrative advertising/affiliate-marketing opportunity. However, WineSearcher could stand to learn a thing or two about revenue models from its top-tier counterparts. As press release explains:

Auckland, New Zealand (PRWEB) October 12, 2007 — Journalists, wine merchants, wine judges and connoisseurs attended the official New Zealand launch of the world’s most used wine search engine in Auckland, New Zealand today (October 10).
The wine market consists of over 80,000 labels world-wide, most with additional vintage variation, and no one wine merchant is able to stock all wines, not even just the wines that are available within a single country. [..] To alleviate this problem, the founder designed and developed a wine search engine that is simple to use, locates the wine with staggering speed and returns quality information and price from anywhere in the world.
Wine-Searcher’s database of over 8500 wine stores’ price lists and 2.6 million offers allows instant access to the picture now, and the history of preceding four years. Using software, Wine-Searcher collects most price lists automatically so the entire database is updated twice a week and a mystery shopper is used to ensure that the wine merchants’ lists are accurate. The site also provides other useful wine information and services, and a directory of all the wine regions and appellations of the world.
[...] Wine-Searcher attracts half a million visitors each month; over 55 million pageviews per year. [...]
The site can be used by anyone for free, and also lists wine merchants for no charge. Income is gained from people paying a small yearly subscription for more in depth search results, and from wine stores choosing to highlight their listings to gain increased sales. Income is also generated from banner advertising on the site. The company has 10,000 subscribers and around 300 sponsors. Turnover has been increasing 50% every year and this year (2007) is expected to reach $NZD 2 million.

If there’s anything that Google’s product strategy has taught us, it’s that users don’t want to pay for functionality. Consequently, WineSearcher might benefit from reconsidering aspects of its advanced search model.

First off, as simple as a solution as having premium or advanced memberships or subscriptions are, it’s also archaic. Too many online service providers have found a way to offer content and functionality that users are becoming increasing suspicious of paid memberships and, therefore, considerably less likely to use them.

Granted, truly passionate vinophiles are a relatively small user-base that it’s difficult to imagine how another vertical search entrepreneur would think that there’s sufficient left-over demand to warrant entering the wine-search market. Furthermore, wine-lovers also tend to belong to higher income demographics and are, therefore, more likely to be willing to invest in such a membership if the product truly is useful.

However, with wine wikis like Vinismo emerging on the market, vinophiles are in more and more of a position to reap the benefits of user-generated-content (watch a video on Vinismo here). Consequently, WineSearcher needs to ask itself whether free portals such as Vinismo represent an alternative to their paid-membership service and, therefore, a potential competitor.

Mind you, one thing that Wikipedia and Google have demonstrated its that wikis and search engines make perfect bedfellows. In terms of offering users a more reliable base of user taster feedback, they might consider trying to establish a partnership with Vinismo, or even outright indexing their content.

However, establishing some form of symbiotic relationship could help better secure its future as a niche vertical search engine. Top-tier search engines have been pushing into the field of vetical search so aggressively that second-tier players have been left to either partner with them, or with each other.

Just yesterday, Google laid more of a claim to the future of local search when the Canadian Yellow Pages announced a partnership with Google whereby they would become the major reseller of Adwords in Canada. Shopping search engines were also dealt a blow yesterday when Microsofts seriously ramped up its Live Product search. Even verticals that have not yet entered the mainstream but promise to play a part of the future of search are also being reeled in by online media giants. For example, Facebook has become the only viable people search platform because it has more reliable information on its users and, therefore, doesn’t have to worry about being bogged down by complex algorithms that can distinguish between two people with the same name. Indeed, when Facebook made its users’ profiles searchable other major people search engines had to find a niche within the vertical, and fall back on focusing on business-related people search only.

So it seems that a niche within any given vertical is the place where search entrepreneurs can catch most easily a break. Consequently, it seems that Wine Searcher is on the right track. Whether they’re moving at the right pace or even in the right directions, however, only time will tell.



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