Cybergolf Search Helps Golfers Find Their Swing

Here’s how you invent a new vertical search category:

* Find motivated seekers.

* Find motivated marketers.

* Develop a tool/ portal/ engine that brings the two together easily.

And that’s it. You’re done.

Okay, it’s rarely that easy at all. But there are occasions when a new highly targeted search engine makes so much sense that it seems as natural as the steps outlined above.

That’s the case with Cybergolf Search, a search engine launched in late March to bring golfers and courses together by letting the former search for the latter by name, location or zip code.

If you don’t immediately see the wisdom of this, let’s say the name of your favorite local course is “Bushwood”, where the inimitable Carl Spackler tends greens and fights gophers. Now try searching for the official Web site by querying a standard search engine using the words “golf” and “wood”. You might eventually find it—but only after pages and pages of results featuring the exploits of Tiger Woods and ads for different brands of drivers.

“It’s been frustrating for many golf course Web sites to try to show up on mainstream search engines,” says Dan Murnan, CEO and founder of Edmonds, WA-based Cybergolf.com, which developed the Cybergolf Search engine in-house. “Typically, if you search on ‘Seattle golf course’, you’ll come up with old news stories, third-party tee time sites, real estate brokers, travel sites and the like. But you’ll have to look deep in those results to find actual Web sites for the local courses.” And as always, forcing searchers to look deep means losing a lot of them along the search path before they reach your site. Search engine marketing is also difficult to impossible on the big engines for these operators, since they’re competing with big brand names in travel and golf equipment for either paid search placement or click-through ads. Bids can run anywhere from $2 to $11 for a popular phrase like “golf resorts Las Vegas” on the top general search engines, says Murnan, effectively placing that tool out of the reach of many of the country’s 12,000 public or resort golf courses.

And finally, of that 12,000 that want to attract non-member golfers, only about 7,000 to 8,000 have Web sites enabled for the kind of e-commerce that golf courses are interested in: offering tee-time sign-ups, coupons and gift cards, online tournament registration and pro shop merchandise over the Web. If your course’s Web site is mere inert brochureware, you’ve got about the same chance of getting indexed and ranked by Google and Yahoo that Paris Hilton has of winning a green jacket at Augusta.

Cybergolf Search may be the answer to that problem. The engine spiders the Web to select only relevant, official course-related sites and accurate golf course information, so that searching on the keyword “Seattle” produces 74 natural results, not 400,000.

Murnan and associates launched the initial Cybergolf.com site as a kind of part-time endeavor back in 1995, intending it as a general Web portal for golf information and merchandise. In late 1999, they decided to work on it full time and came up with a set of e-commerce tools that course marketers could use to book tee times, offer specials and communicate with registered customers via e-mail and newsletters.

With the launch of Cybergolf Search, those tools can be integrated into the course listings, if marketers choose. Searchers can click on a “Hot Times” button to find and sign up for tee times, with updated prices. A “Specials” button leads them to Web-based discount coupons, and a “Pro Shop” tab gets them to listings of upcoming tournaments, with fees and online registration. That e-commerce technology is proprietary to Cybergolf.com, and it should help make the search engine a crucial part of course operators’ marketing plans.

“It’s all about getting that tee sheet filled,” Murnan says. “That’s what drives everything else. If the tee times are filled, people are in the pro shop buying merchandise, and people are in the restaurant buying food and drink.” At the same time, a tee-time e-commerce application has to be particularly accurate and foolproof: No customer is more disgruntled than a golf foursome who’ve been told that, due to a scheduling error, they have to wait for hours to tee off.

Combining the search function with e-commerce also serves as encouragement to get those courses without Web sites, or without fully transactional ones, to put more interactive marketing online. Easing that migration will be key to providing more content for Cybergolf Search to index, and thus making the site more valuable for searchers. Below the level of a Pebble Beach or Burning Bush, many golf courses are as short of IT talent as they are of marketing funds, Murnan says.

“In the last couple of years, golf courses have recognized that online marketing is really the way to go and that the return on investment can be huge, compared to print ads in local magazines or golf publications,” he says. “We’ve made all our systems easy for them to use, to take the fear out of the Web. For many of these golf courses, the pro is typically the marketing person, and he’s busy giving lessons, running the pro shop and running tournaments. We give him the tools to let him update the Web site or create a special and send it out in 10 or 15 minutes.”

As for revenue, Murnan says Cybergolf Search may uncover that may come in a number of places. For one thing, the company already has about 300 courses that pay to appear in special “sponsored” positions at the head of location-appropriate search results pages, at a flat click-through price ranging from 50 cents to $1. Cybergolf also plans to start selling pay-per-click advertising on the right rail of the search page, like many other search engines. Murnan says these will probably be a mix of golf-related Web pages and travel sites. After all, one likely group of Cybergolf Search users will be golfers planning vacations and looking for a good course near their destinations.

The organic link between golf and travel may also provide a revenue opportunity. Murnan says the site is in talks with various travel and lodging sites interested in adding the Cybergolf Search function to their Web pages for a fee.

But no matter how much of a natural hit a vertical golf course search engine may seem, it still faces some of the same obstacles confronting all other upstart search: namely, drawing traffic and keeping ahead of competitors.

The company is promoting Cybergolf Search by doing some search engine marketing of its own, but the main promotional channel will be simply be getting the search query box in front of as many online golfers as possible. It’s hardwired into the main Cybergolf.com page, which receives 3 million visitors annually; but it will also be placed on Web sites through partnerships with other golf entities and professional organizations. “In golf, word of mouth moves very quickly,” Murnan says. “If someone offers you a function that you find useful, you’re going to tell your golfing buddies about it.”

That clubby strategy may also work as well as proprietary technology to slow the arrival of competing engines. Cybergolf currently has a network of operator clients in 44 states and four countries, and Murnan says those relationships should help safeguard the company’s niche market. “The golf industry is pretty tightly tied together,” he says. “It’s definitely a relationship industry, and it can be pretty hard for a newcomer to break in.”

The tremendous pace of development by the biggest and even the second-tier players in today’s search industry means that few companies can claim a market all to themselves. If Google or Yahoo—or for that matter, a travel site like Kayak.com or Hotels.com—took a few steps to one side, they might be able to challenge Cybergolf Search’s market position even while the company was solidifying it.

But Murnan says that so far, at least, he’s confident they’ve got a good grip on their duffer demographic. “I haven’t seen any competition coming up yet, although I’m sure it’s coming,” he says. “We’re definitely ahead and well established in online marketing for the golf industry.”

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