Why Niche Markets Should Keep Big Websites Up at Night

“Uneasy is the head that wears the crown” – Shakespeare

In his recent Webmaster video, Matt Cutts talks about how to compete in search with other well established brands online:

How on earth are we supposed to compete with them? They rank for everything!

We get a very similar question from a lot of our ecommerce clients, specifically related to trying to compete with the big players (most commonly Amazon).

The answer to that question comes in many forms but most importantly, it probably requires taking a look at the big picture of where the web is today, and a common trend we often see when a major new market emerges (think search engines, eCommerce, social media…). After the big players find their place atop the mountain (Google, Amazon, Facebook), it’s common to see smaller competition crop up, but their differentiator being a more specific target market.

For social media, we see niche networks continuing to grow, where communities are formed in far less sizable groups compared to Facebook, but are just as, if not more, potent as Facebook’s communities. Competing directly with Facebook is a big ask, but to undercut a percentage of their market with specialized networks will most certainly be far more effective.

For eCommerce, we see niche ecommerce shops pop up and succeed all the time. It’s actually not that difficult to attack some strong mid and long tail terms when competing with Amazon and outrank them for specific terms.

Alluded to in the video above, it’s extremely easy for a small and agile team to move quickly in their marketing efforts. Quickly publishing relevant content or attacking tactics in rapid succession is always easier for a scrappier team. Imagine all the red tape and hoops a large company has to jump through in order to make the simplest change to their site.

So thinking about this, I got really curious –

A step higher, let’s say hypothetically someone wanted to create their own search engine to compete with Google. Where do they even begin? I’m not talking about Bing or Yahoo! – but an actual, scrappy startup, fresh to market.

Off the top of my head, I think I’d say the most effective way to approach this would be from the angle of creating a niche search service. Focusing my efforts on one specific search, and providing a far superior experience to that of an established search engine, it actually starts to seem reasonable that it might be possible to compete.

One such service I recently found was Skilledup.com – a micro search engine specifically tuned for the online education space. They focus all their results on offering the best search for online educational resources (like HTML, SEO, Programming, etc). Each result is finely tuned to offer a much more specific experience for those looking for such resources.

They have built their results page into something far superior to the often overcrowded SERPs of the major engines, offering tailored, editorial descriptions of each service.

Another similar example being travel related searches. Sites like Kayak (have you seen their explore feature?), despite Google attempting to compete with their own travel search functions, still own the space because of their ability to offer an overall better experience in the hunt for airfare. Much in the same way Amazon can’t scale their efforts to compete with every niche ecommerce site, Google won’t be able to offer the same sorts of resources that niche search sites offer either.

But what about the branding?

This is probably the most difficult thing a niche search engine will face. Most people don’t search to find a better search engine.

So what’s the angle?

Well, not unlike any normal content strategy, these folks will still want to build content that references the mid and long tail searches for their early marketing efforts. But ideally, after they build up enough credibility as a functional micro search engine, they begin to recognize repeat traffic to utilize their service. You know, that whole “building a brand and retaining customers” thing, where we all learn to not rely on search traffic for all our revenue.

This is a trend I expect will continue to grow. I have a hard time believing anyone will compete directly with any of the major search engines in the short term. But can the scrappy startup give them a massive headache? Absolutely.