Back in September of last year we wrote about the rise of vertical search engines here. In that article we emphasized the superiority of vertical search over generic search, in terms of search results. We argued that knowing the semantics of the underlying domain allows a vertical search engine to excel both in filtering the result, as well as the presentation.

In a follow up post at the beginning of this year we explored the The Race to Beat Google, by dissecting the different approaches Google's competitors are taking to unseat the search king. We discussed three major categories: a better technology, a better user interface, and vertical search as a domain-focused blend of the first two. We concluded that Google is still the search king and even if there is a technology out there that has promise, Google is not going to miss it.

This week, when Google rolled out Universal Search, our expectations were confirmed. The morning after questions are: who is hurt? who is wounded? and who is dead? The big question is: does Google Universal search mean the end of Vertical Search era?

What did Google roll out?

This week Google introduced Universal Search, a search product still in its early stages but that, at its core, combines searches across heterogeneous media: text, images, news, maps and video. But really, Universal Search is much more than that. It's a calculated shot aimed at a particular subset of the vertical search engines - the ones that claim to understand the underlying domain. Google already had search for each of these verticals, so all it has done is combined the results from all these searches into their main search results (where all the page views are).

Why does this make sense? Because mainstream consumers should not be given the choice upfront. You do not need to ask a person what they are searching for, because you can disambiguate the results by letting the user click on the right answer. This is exactly what Universal Search does.

Note the simplicity and elegance of this solution. All that Google is doing is aggregating matches from different verticals. Then for each vertical that matched, it offers to refine the results further. That means that, for example, if you search for Read/WriteWeb and there are no images that match, the refinement for images will not be shown. Now fathom the complexity of this! Google does a parallel search across multiple verticals and instantly aggregates the results. This is not difficult to conceive of, but it certainly is quite difficult to implement.

But wait, there's more....clustering and time

Google takes this further yet. The refinements are possible not only for verticals, but also for clusters. This is a function that we have not seen in Google properties before - clustering. Universal Search lets users drill into specific clusters of results, both subsets and related searches:

Yet another interesting dimension that Google brings to search results is time. Users of universal search can partition the search results by history. This is a subtle but really valuable and innovative angle. Here are for example, are the results for nanotechnology:

To sum up, Google rolled out more than an aggregator for verticals. What we are seeing is a hybrid approach - tackling vertical search using knowledge of semantics (i.e. understanding the subject), co-occurrence (clustering) and time. It is also clear that these dimensions are only some of the possible slices that Google can execute.

Who is hurt?

So where does this leave us and what is the score now in Google vs The Others? It appears that Google has executed a major blow to the entire competitive search market and some specialized competitors. Why? Because Google just showed that they care about vertical search, they can do it well and, most importantly, they have an algorithm that generalizes the vertical search.

As it stands, any vertical search engine for Images, News or Video is endangered. Also, clustering search engines like Clusty seem to be out of luck. But the engines that try to present search results in a different way are still in business. Google's frugal approach to UI still keeps it out of the business of radically redesigning the presentation of results, leaving an opportunity to other companies.

Who will be hurt?

Perhaps the most unexpected conclusion that we draw from the Universal Search is that no vertical is now safe. What would stop Google from including music, movies, jobs and travel in the list of right-hand contextual search navigation? Nothing really, it is just a matter of integration and a little time. No vertical is safe anymore.

Perhaps the sad part in the whole search game, as in any other game, is inertia. Because Google is so big and popular and dominant, it does not need bells and whistles to win. Sure, all UI innovation is interesting and nice, but it may not be able to get beyond the early adopter crowd - simply because what Google delivers is good enough (or even great enough!) for the average consumer. So while there is certainly room left to innovate in the search presentation space, the utility vs. adoption equation is still by far in Google's favor.

Conclusion

It appears that Universal search delivers a major blow to the entire vertical search space. We have argued for a while that innovative/better technologies will have a difficult time competing against Google's algorithm. And now the verticals are threatened by Universal Search. Since UI improvements are also difficult, because not all consumers respond to them well, it appears that Google's latest move has solidified its position as the search king.

Is this unexpected? No. Is this bad? Not really. This is just how things work - Google is not going to give up its leadership easily, just like Microsoft did not want to and still does not. In the mean time, as always, we have the pleasure of witnessing this gigantic battle for search, for advertising, for eyeballs and of course ultimately - the dollars.

Now, tell us what do you think about the latest Google move.