Last week, we wrote about The Seattle Times Co. and its new “Network search,” which is powered with FAST. This week, we are covering The Boston Globe’s Boston.com and its new “Federated” search solution, powered by Google.
Federated and Network search are different names for pretty much the same thing. But even as the respective newspapers try to tackle the issues of incorporating small-business advertisers and the elements of local search, they are taking somewhat different approaches.
Boston.com’s mission is to move away from “newspaper.com” toward becoming the aggregator of local community content, notes VP of Product Bob Kempf. The site has taken several concrete steps to get there, including local news outreach, crawls for local events, multimedia search, and perhaps most importantly, business listing search (i.e., Yellow Pages).
The initial step was making the news from The Boston Globe and content from Boston.com searchable. But since then, it has also reached out to 4,500 local Boston-area sites to supplement the content.
The event listings, using ZVents, was something that added a unique element to the site and “quadrupled the amount of listings,” says Kempf. It is more than just effective crawling. Users are seeing that the site has a really good event guide and submitting listings of their own.
Multimedia is another key ingredient for the site and its 360-degree, federated search strategy. As the site has added more and more audio and video, its content has become less findable. But that has been helped by adding search, via Everyzing, a vendor that transcribes audio content to track the content.
The multimedia application “doesn’t bring in huge traffic,” but it is very relevant for a news site, says Kempf. And it goes way beyond the search box. “What we’re doing is adding little ‘searchlets’ into the site, he notes. “We drop [clips of] Manny Ramirez right into articles.”
But Kempf’s team reached a conclusion that those solutions would probably always be “second rate” compared with one provided by a major search engine (i.e., Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft). He notes the search engines are pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into search algorithms, making relevant matches to queries, ratings and reviews.
Ultimately, Boston.com chose to partner with Google for a variety of considerations, including the power of the Google Maps brand, which appears alongside Boston.com when you go into Business Listings; its relatively low upfront cost (it pays Google just a small amount for the searches that are actually made); access to its extensive tool set; its high level of maintenance; and the ease of using Google’s licensed listings instead of having to make its own deals with a listing company. Google’s broader deal with The New York Times Co. might have had some influence as well.
Boston.com also appreciated the ability to use Google to build out a tiered list of searches that any newspaper would want to have; a “white list” for pure listing lookups; a “gray list” for in between searches, such as place names; and a “black list” for inappropriate searches, such as tying merchandise ads to a news story on a murder in Worchester.
On a business basis, the deal with Google gives Boston.com a chance to make money on reselling the CPM at higher rates and also from local AdSense ads that appear alongside the searches, says Kempf. It also provides new inventory to sell around the search box — not dissimilar to what newspapers have always done, selling mortgage ads around real estate listings and other content.
What Kempf and his team haven’t begun to work on is any search integration with classifieds, an area he admits is the “least sexy.” It also hasn’t begun to aggressively sell to smaller local advertisers — something The Seattle Times appears to be far in front of. “It was very core for GateHouse,” where Kempf worked on Wicked Local in the suburbs that surround Boston, one of the first federated search projects. “But it isn’t core for us.”
In a followup email to me after this post was written, Kempf clarifies:”Classifieds are on the roadmap but not on the immediate roadmap; small business listings very much are core and are on the immediate roadmap.”
Next steps that Kempf envisions include using the search technology to help develop more vertical directories, such has health and business. The site is also getting a massive dose of TV and radio promotion, where Boston.com is not treated as a newspaper, but as an information source.
“The trick is to untrain users for news,” he says. In a followup email to me, also cited above, Kempf adds: “The news use case remains core and very important to us. Expanding beyond that use is the challenge. I wouldn’t want your readers to think that we’ve abandoned news or its importance to us.”