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The value of search services

There are a huge number of online services, both paid-for and freely available, which provide users the ability to search for, retrieve and digest content. As is so often the case with online products and services, quantifying the economic value of these and pinning down from where the value arises is extremely difficult.

It would be reasonable to assume that in some, probably unequal, proportion the value is largely created by the content and the search features that allow for the retrieval of this content.


Obviously without content a search service is unlikely to have any value at all. Key factors in the value of the content include:

  • the quality and integrity of the data
  • the volume of material available
  • the format of the material
  • the relevance of the content to potential users (including recency of creation and publication)
  • how content which duplicates an original, perhaps physical, format varies from the original


Similarly without a appropriate mechanism to retrieve relevant data, a service will have little value. However as long as a user has some way to access relevant content, even if it is inconvenient or cumbersome, I would argue the quality of this is secondary to the quality of the content. Factors in the value of the retrieval include:

  • the speed at which a user can find results
  • the variety of ways a user can access the material (e.g. range of devices supported)
  • the ease of use
  • the range of search featuers supported
  • the ability to combine search features

Hold on, what sort of ‘value’ are we talking about?

You might have picked up on the fact that I haven’t specified what form of value these aspects of a search service create. This is the most difficult part of valuing a search service. Personally I think many of those factors mentioned above are high on the list in terms of creating value for the end-user: providing them with a reason to use the service itself. However, translating this into any kind of monetary value, in terms of what the customer is willing to pay for (if anything) is very tricky.

Open Library is an information retrieval service disrupting traditional publishing business models

What’s the point?

This creates one of the biggest challenges of the day in the publishing industry. Quantifying the cost and profit of products and features within them is problematic. This is particularly compounded by the fact that new ‘open access’ services featuring ‘open data’ are disrupting the business models publishers currently rely on. As a result many of those companies developing search services for profit have to make decisions with very limited evidence as to what to invest money in.

How can a search service make a sustainable profit?

Though I don’t have any answers myself, I feel its worth making the point that the above question remains mostly unanswered for many of the organisations involved in the ‘search business’. Obviously improving on all of the factors mentioned that affects a user’s perception of the service would certainly help, as happy users tends to equate to happy customers. There is also profit to be made in tools that empower individuals and organisations to create and publish the content featured in search services. But ultimately pinning down what makes for the success and failure of businesses in this industry is a hard task.  Having said this, the company behind the most well known search service in the world, Google, has been making a sustained profit for many years and provide inspiration that it is possible to build a profitable search service.

What’s it to you?

‘Search’ is certainly an interesting area  to work in from a technical perspective. But what is inspiring to me as a developer from a business perspective is that there are successful cases of businesses in this area that manage to maintain high standards in terms of quality, a healthy company culture and a level of professionalism while remaining financially viable.

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