Spock Co-Founder Finds Vertical Search Engines 'Fascinating' - InformationWeek

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8/11/2008
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Michael Singer
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Spock Co-Founder Finds Vertical Search Engines 'Fascinating'

"Nowhere am I so desperately needed as among a shipload of illogical humans." --Spock in "I, Mudd." The same can be said of the search engine market these days, which is why Jay Bhatti, co-founder of Spock, loves his company's business model.

"Nowhere am I so desperately needed as among a shipload of illogical humans." --Spock in "I, Mudd." The same can be said of the search engine market these days, which is why Jay Bhatti, co-founder of Spock, loves his company's business model.Spock -- the Web site search engine and not Star Trek's famous Vulcan -- claims it has more than 14 million site users and 5 million monthly visitors. As a former Microsoft employee, Bhatti told InformationWeek that knowing the target audience is paramount to growing the business, which is why Spock focuses on people and not on everything (read: Google).

"When you look at the statistics, 30% of all searches are for people," Bhatti said. "It's a huge category, to be sure, but one where we know the traffic will be."

Launched a little more than a year ago, Spock isn't reeling in the page views, about 150,000 to 200,000 searches per day, Bhatti said. But the partnerships are making up for organic traffic. The company is actively pursuing contracts that allow it to be the "Search Powered By" choice for content players.

"Very similar to how Google started, we feel that search is ultimately about people, which is where our strength lies," Bhatti said.

For example, someone reading about famed General Electric CEO Jack Welch in the The Wall Street Journal could use an external search engine to find more information, but Spock (and certainly the WSJ) would rather readers keep within the paper's Web sphere of influence.

In addition to site search partnerships, Spock allows individuals to pad their own profiles with keywords. The company said it has indexed upwards of 300 million unique people with more than 10 billion data elements. My Spock search result looks a bit like my LinkedIn profile, except that I populated Spock with my own list of common keywords. I still end up on the third or fourth page no matter which search engine I use (sigh).

A recently added feature to Spock is a blue band of suggested Titles, Organizations, and Locations. The list is handpicked based on a group of Spock's editors, which Bhatti said are used with all of the search engines.

"One thing we found is people may have a hard time figuring out what to type in a search bar. So we're helping them by suggesting a location or organization and get them started," Bhatti said. "It's just a random sampling that changes every once in a while. It's not done by popularity but it's a way for our algorithm to stay relevant given the challenges of people searches with pictures."

To avoid spoofing someone's identity, Bhatti said Spock relies on known and trusted reference materials before populating the search with a photo.

Another challenge for people searches is the category someone might have. For example, a search for Boxer may end up with boxing champ Mohammed Ali as the top hit or California Sen. Barbara Boxer. Bhatti said Spock's 30 employees (mostly scientists) are in the process of asking Web searchers to hone in their queries. "Did you mean boxer the sport or person?" may be a preliminary result in the near future, Bhatti said.

On the horizon, Spock is expected to augment its people searches to social networks in the upcoming months. Spock currently has partnerships with MySpace, Friendster, Microsoft's LiveSpaces, and Bebo, but not the ever-elusive Facebook. This may change as the social network begins to open up its profiles to other sites.

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