Thinking Outside the Search Box
Search continues to be an engine of growth, and start-ups are plentiful. Many have real customers, real sales, and real working capital. Nearly all are bursting with clever ideas, products, and services.
Among these new-generation search vendors, none entertain fantasies of competing with Google, MSN, or Yahoo. Instead, they’re focusing on how to make search work better and how to work better with search.
One innovator, Kanisa Inc., helps companies’ customers find useful information within corporate databases. Kanisa actually predates Google by a year, and its original search software product is still used by customers, including some 25,000 Microsoft service agents. The company has been rejuvenated in part by last year’s acquisition of search technology from Ask Jeeves. Today, customers including Ford, Nike, ADP, and Nestle Purina PetCare incorporate Kanisa’s technology into their Websites.
Purina, the pet food and supplies company’s U.S. operation, powers its “Ask Purina” feature with Kanisa’s natural-language query and search technology on all its customer-facing sites. It also offers the tool on the Pets.Yahoo.com site through a partnership with Yahoo. Visitors can type in full questions — such as “What’s the best food for a two-month-old kitten?” — and the results will comprise a series of relevant links and summaries. While that’s great for customers, the real benefit from Purina’s perspective is that such self-service search tools reduce phone traffic to its call center. “If you look at the number of queries you get times the cost to handle a phone call, the ROI is huge,” says Brad Worth, a brand manager in Purina’s interactive group.
Other search companies hope to rise high by diving deep. BrightPlanet Corp., for example, says Google’s universe of more than 4 billion Web pages, while impressive, only scratches the surface. What company founders call the “deep Web” contains, they say, much, much more. In fact, BrightPlanet COO Duncan Witte says just the top 60 deep Websites (including the Library of Congress Online Catalog, eBay.com, the National Climatic Data Center site, the SEC’s Edgar, MP3.com, and Amazon.com) collectively possess some 84 billion documents — many of them in formats other than the simple HTML pages that today’s search engines traffic in. BrightPlanet’s products, which are jointly marketed by IBM and other consultants, promise to help information analysts plumb these overlooked sources.
A long list of other search innovators are exploring other aspects. Groxis converts lists of search results into graphical maps. Black Tulip Systems Corp. has licensed technology from NASA that searches through an enterprisewide network. Mamma.com offers “metasearch” software that essentially searches using multiple search engines, then consolidates the results into a single report.
What many of these companies have going for them, in addition to cool names, is strong intellectual capital, often involving patents. Major investors are another advantage; search-ad specialist Quigo Technologies, for example, recently landed an investment led by Bob Davis, a former Lycos CEO. Industry expertise doesn’t hurt, either: version 2.0 of the Grokker software offered by Groxis was developed with help from John Seely Brown, a former director of Xerox PARC, the famed Palo Alto Research Center.