Conquering the Digital Haystack
Jason Wiener's girlfriend left him -- and that might be good news for your business.
What do the love travails of a 31-year-old Chicagoan have to do with you? Suffice to say that Wiener's quest for a new gal led him to online matchmaking services. His trouble finding a good match, in turn, led the software whiz to realize there might be better ways to find all sorts of things online, not just dates. And so it was that Dipsie -- Wiener's 18-month-old start-up -- was born. Dipsie, Wiener claims, will do nothing less than usher in a new era in searching the Web. "We're able to find more information and get people more relevant results than they've ever had," he boasts. Better searches, of course, will make it easier for consumers to locate products and services, as well as improve how advertisers position electronic advertising -- and that's why you might care about Wiener's love life.
Whether Dipsie, which released its first product in late 2004, will deliver on such promises remains to be seen. But clearly it's time to revisit the search engine. Google's IPO didn't end the search wars, it fanned the flames. Few fields are as rife with activity, and a slew of start-ups are angling for position. Some claim new and better technology than the PageRank algorithm made famous by Google. Others seek merely to be different -- filling voids left by the big players. And though the technologies, in most cases, are brand-new and untested, they promise to change the way consumers search the Web -- and the way advertisers reach those consumers. A look at three of the hottest search start-ups -- all planning services for small businesses by early 2005 -- shows how.
San Francisco-based Blinkx launched last July and already claims more than a million users. What does Blinkx do differently? Its technology not only matches keywords but also locates related concepts. So if you're reading an article on CNN.com about, say, the war in Iraq, Blinkx will point to other articles on other sites about those events, terrorism, and Mideast geopolitics in general -- with far more precision than CNN's related-article box.
What's more, Blinkx searches everything -- not just the Web but also the contents of your computer, including e-mail messages and attachments and files on your hard drive, as well as weblogs and digital television content, which are currently ignored by most other search engines. The technology then organizes the data into channels: Local (for your personal files), Web, News, Shopping, Video, E-mails, and Blogs. Download the free software and Blinkx monitors whatever you're working on, displaying links in a toolbar on the top right corner of your screen -- in effect offering answers to questions you haven't even asked yet.
Suppose a Blinkx user e-mails a friend in San Francisco suggesting a visit to some Napa Valley wineries. As the recipient reads the message, the Blinkx channel icons will twinkle and change color. Clicking on one will bring up a list of up to 10 links. The Local channel might show the way to a PDF on the user's hard drive that contains the Napa Valley wine train schedule. The Web channel might lead to the homepages of various wineries. Alongside these, when Blinkx rolls out search-related advertising in early 2005, will be paid ads.
But these won't be like the paid links we know today. Most current search-related ads are based on keywords or fixed phrases. Advertisers purchase the keywords and bid to be listed prominently when the search results appear. "That's great if you're Mondavi winery and can afford to buy the word wine," says Blinkx's co-founder and chief technology officer, Suranga Chandratillake. But suppose you own a gourmet cafe in Napa that offers special deals for tourists. How do you express your offer in a few words so that you will turn up on searches? "You can't," Chandratillake says.
But because Blinkx searches both keywords and the broader concepts behind those words, advertisers can design ads based on descriptions and concepts. The technology, Chandratillake says, is aimed squarely at small companies that have increasingly been squeezed out of traditional Web advertising by keyword bidding wars. Write a few paragraphs that describe your offer -- such as, "We're a cafe, a family-owned business, near the wine train. Come in and get a free cup of coffee." Blinkx will analyze the concepts behind those words, so that if anyone (like our hypothetical San Francisco friends) types in "Napa Valley, wine and coffee," the cafe will get a high ranking -- right alongside Mondavi, Starbucks, or any other big advertiser that's paid handsomely for the keywords. "The small business that offers something unique for a niche can actually advertise effectively alongside the big guys," says Chandratillake. "There's no way of doing that with the Google system."
A different kind of assault on Google comes from Snap, a Pasadena, Calif., start-up out of Bill Gross's Idealab that debuted in October. Bear in mind that it was an earlier Idealab company, GoTo.com (later renamed Overture), that pioneered online search and pay-per-click advertising and was sold in 2003 to Yahoo for $1.6 billion. Snap wants to go beyond GoTo. Rather than pay-per-click, it offers "pay-per-action" advertising. In other words, tracking software installed on an advertiser's site registers a fee only after a sale is made. "You pay only when you actually complete a transaction," says CEO Tom McGovern.
As was the case with GoTo and other forms of paid search, McGovern expects Snap's early advertisers to be smaller firms. "Small and medium-size businesses really made GoTo in the early days," he says. "Dell and Compaq and Amazon didn't come for a long time. If you come early, you benefit as far as the cost." Of course, if Snap is successful, that discount won't last long. Snap hopes to keep small companies onboard by adding special features for local advertisers -- most of which are small businesses.
Which brings us to poor lovelorn Jason Wiener. When struggling to find dates online, Wiener began to think the process would be easier if the technology recognized the concepts behind what people were looking for -- rather than simply matching traits such as occupation, age, or hobbies. Wiener, for instance, loves to snowboard and might list that as a hobby. But a keyword search wouldn't match him with, say, a woman who enjoyed skiing -- even though they both love hitting the slopes.
Hence Dipsie, which searches based on semantic rules rather than keywords or even concepts. Wiener claims his semantic algorithm can sift through Web information and get you in one click what might take several with a conventional engine -- if it got you there at all. He also says the ability to map concepts will enable him to index some 10 billion webpages, more than double the four billion claimed by Google.
The company's search engines are currently targeted at consumers and do not yet feature paid advertising. But Dipsie has another product that's geared to business owners: Dipsie SEO, which launched in late 2004 and is designed to help websites improve their visibility on search engines such as Google and Yahoo. Suppose you own a small public relations firm. Dipsie SEO takes a phrase from your site, like "our public relations experts," and rewrites it in semantically similar ways -- "our publicists," "our publicity pros," or "our promotions staff" -- loading the site's pages with terms that help it do better on the search engines. Companies pay as little as $29.99 a month for the service -- the fee goes up as the volume of information rises. There are scores of similar products and services out there. But most of them involve paying consultants to create new webpages or add keywords to allow buried information to be crawled by search engine spiders. Dipsie, says Wiener, "does it automatically. None of them can."
Keep in mind that none of this exists in a vacuum. Blinkx's ability to scour your computer and all its programs, for example, is not much different from Google Desktop Search and a similar product planned by Microsoft. Will Google or Microsoft buy Blinkx and crush it, or ignore it? Who knows? At the same time, all the big players -- joined by firms like directory giant Dex Media and online business service provider Interland -- have launched search initiatives of their own. Many of these are aimed at small businesses, including affordable fixed-price plans that guarantee certain numbers of keyword clicks and local advertising programs. At the moment, it's the trend that's important rather than any one particular offering. With technology trends changing rapidly, paying attention now will keep you ahead of the curve -- and ahead of your competitors.