Personalizing Search Results, Surf Canyon Risks Google's Ire

Surf Canyon re-orders search results in real time based on the users' inferred intent.
Joining a raft of other startups that are adopting an "If you can't beat 'em, overlay 'em" approach to search giant Google, Surf Canyon today publicly debuted its "Discovery Engine" for real-time re-ordering of search results based on the users' inferred intent.

"Inferred intent" means understanding what the user is really searching for based on behavior after the initial page of search results appears, said Mark Cramer, CEO and founder of the Oakland-based startup.

"We're looking at the actions of the user as the search is taking place -- not their past history but their current actual search," said Cramer. "What our technology does is take that, then it goes into the search results and digs out relevant results."

So, if you do a search on "Colorado ski" and click on the link for Breckenridge, the Surf Canyon add-on combs subsequent results pages to find more Web pages featuring Breckenridge, as opposed to the myriad Colorado skiing sites displayed in the general search. Working on top of major search engines including Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft Live, the downloadable application retrieves three additional links for every result you choose, and nests subsequent refinements up to three levels deep.

"We didn't want to disturb the users' experience," said Cramer, "so we provide extra value without disrupting what they're doing."

Surf Canyon's application works on either Internet Explorer or Firefox browsers.

Founded in April 2006, Surf Canyon has received $250,000 in angel funding and is seeking additional funding, Cramer said. He plans to make money by carving off a slice of the incremental revenue generated by producing more relevant search results, and more relevant sponsored ads tied to those results.

Search "personalization" has become a hot area in the past 12 months as new entrants seek to provide more refined and relevant results tailored to an individual's tastes and habits.

Delver, for instance, is a "socially connected search engine" that provides results gleaned from people linked exclusively to the user via Facebook and MySpace friends list plus an extended network of "friends of friends. Similarly, Circos, which bills itself as "a search engine with a brain and a heart," uses specific preference data from the searcher to refine search results and add "opinions from authoritative sources" that match the searcher's needs and desires.

Circos "takes me-centric search to a whole new level," said CEO and co-founder Morris Sim.

As an add-on that works on top of the major search engines, Surf Canyon is different from those startups. It also is a potential irritant to Google, which has been adamant about not allowing third parties that use its results to modify or re-order them. (Google also provides a "Similar pages" feature that does what Surf Canyon purports to do, in a less targeted fashion.) Since Surf Canyon does not actually use Google's APIs, Cramer said those stipulations don't apply. Whether Google buys that remains to be seen.

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