Monday, April 11, 2005

Meta-Search Sites & Classified Ads

The recent introduction of Oogle raises the question of the role search will play in the market for classified ads. Will consumers find classified ads via an intermediary like Oogle, or any of the various local search engines? Will these search engines add sufficient value that they themselves become destinations? These are very interesting questions.

The rise of local search engines was a tremendous boon for local classified ads sites. These search engines need local data in order to provide value to their users. So they created algorithms to sift through the web using geolocation technology, zip code, address, phone information and mapping to categorize their web indexes into local slices of information.

As a result, the search engines became voracious consumers of local information. This works very well if you are looking for a bike path in Davis California. The local search engine can filter our websites talking about Geena Davis and Gray Davis, and give you information about bike paths specifically in Davis, CA. But what if you are looking to buy a bike in Davis California? In order to satisfy this query, the search engines need to start digging into local classified ad websites.

This situation results in a symbiotic relationship between local search and the classified ad websites, which are rich stores of local information. The classified ad websites need the search engines to direct consumers to their sites; while the search engines need the classified ad websites to provide more local value to their users.

But this too raises issues. When a user finds a classified ad via a search engine, they go directly to the item for sale, they don’t navigate through the classified ad’s website, so the consumer isn’t seeing their banner ads on those missed pages. This undermines the classified ad website’s revenue potential from advertising.

But more importantly, what happens when the search engines, which already cache information from the websites they spider, start adding value above and beyond the classified ad sites themselves? Google’s news site has started adding more value than the actual sources of the articles, because they offer multiple articles about the same story, giving people the ability to get the story’s details from multiple perspectives.

Now Oogle and others are starting to do the same thing to classified ad websites. Modeled after shopping sites like NexTag, Oogle provides superior navigation, searching and filtering the ads than some of the classified ad websites themselves. In essence, Oogle is using the classified ad sites as a mere data source.

The difference between classified ads and news is that classified ads are bi-directional. Consumers not only read classified ads, they also need the ability to publish them. Once Oogle and other classified ad search sites reach critical mass, they will, no doubt, want to provide a classified ad publishing model that is optimized for their data structure and UI. This is the classic “embrace and extend” perfected by Microsoft in the software world.

Another example of enhanced search of classified ads is the combination of Google maps and Craigslist classified ads. Paul Rademacher’s hack of Google Maps enables users to drill down into Craigslist listings on a map. I think you’ll see more applications like this being built on top of classified ad systems, in effect using them as a data source. And as they become more of a data source behind cool looking applications, they lose their interface to the consumer. The interface is how websites develop a relationship with consumers. If classified ad websites are relegated to being a data source behind another company’s interface, they will lose advertising revenue and they will lose the relationship with their customers, both of which are extremely important to any web-based business.

In summary, search engines and classified ad websites currently enjoy a symbiotic relationship. The classified ad sites need the search engines to drive users to their websites. The local search engines need the rich local content of the classified ad websites in order to provide a a superior local search solution. But the ultimate relationship between websites and the consumer is the browser interface. If classified ad search engines succeed at owning the interface between the user and the classified ad website, then the website becomes little more than a data source. They become invisible to the user. And on the Internet, invisibility = “replaceability”.