Are the odds stacked against start-ups in the search engine space?


7 Aug 2008

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Last week’s launch of brand new search engine Cuil.com, co-founded by Louth man Tom Costello, brought about mixed reactions from web users and the industry alike.

This was the first firm to really make an attempt to go up against Google’s virtual monopoly of the search engine space by building search technology from scratch and having an index of webpages it claimed was larger than Google’s, making it the world’s largest search engine.

It also had the advantage of a strong privacy policy – it does not keep logs of users’ search activity. Your search history is your business not ours, it says.

However, many reviewers panned the site, saying the searches did not seem as relevant as those on Yahoo! or Google.

Secondly, and most importantly perhaps, there is no obvious monetisation strategy. Whereas advertising is both Google and Yahoo’s bread and butter, Cuil has not disclosed its business model.

“It’s an interesting time for search engines. The strategy for Cuil is an unusual one – it wanted to go head to head with Google,” says Professor Barry Smyth (pictured), co-founder of HeyStaks, a University College Dublin (UCD) spin-out that aims to change the way people search.

With such a high level of interest, yet expectation of failure, surrounding any of the small guys trying to get a slice of the search space – of which Google has an 87pc market share in the UK, according to Hitwise – it is still possible for a start-up to succeed if it takes a clever approach.

“For us, we didn’t want to be eating Google’s lunch – that’s not a very sensible thing to do. You don’t go up to the biggest boy in the yard and nick his lunch on him,” explains Smyth.

“What we want to do with HeyStaks is bring something else to the table – we want to work with Google.”

HeyStaks is one of four start-ups, along with Locle, TouristR and Playza,that recently benefited from the €100,000 Eircom Web Innovation Fund. HeyStaks is channelling this money into commercialising its product, which will work as a plug-in on Google’s search engine.

The product will hopefully achieve high visibility through its launch from the Eircom.net platform.

HeyStaks is not a direct competitor to Google but rather a product that can be used with it, thus improving the existing results.

“We’re providing an overlay on top of Google. It is still the same good old Google results but with annotations, so unlike Cuil, we don’t suffer from the problem of not having a good basic set of results. We have the best set of results money can buy, as it were, but we are augmenting them with HeyStaks,” says Smyth.

HeyStaks arose out of co-founders Smyth, Peter Briggs and Dr Maurice Coyle’s thinking that there was something missing from a lot of current search engines.

“The thing that’s missing is the ability to organise your search experiences and the ability to share your search experiences.

“We’re so used to the idea of organising our word documents into a set of folders so that it is easy to find them again and we’re used to the idea of sharing information with other people by emailing them.”

Smyth says given the significant amount of time we spend searching the web in a typical day, it is a waste of time to have to go back and re-find search experiences, “unless we’ve gone to the trouble of saving that page or bookmarking it, which quite frankly the vast majority of people don’t do.

“We’re left with the need to re-find things so the first thing HeyStaks said was ‘Let’s help people organise their searches in a more meaningful way’. That is where the idea of ‘staks’ came from – looking at what people are searching for, a lot of it tends to fall into different topics.”

Using the HeyStaks toolbar you can create different searches as ‘staks’. When your stak is new it does not know much, but after training it with a few examples it then learns what search goes with what stak. So, for example, if you’re looking for ‘California’ and ‘hotel’, it will know to file this under ‘holidays’.

The other thing HeyStaks noticed that was missing in search is the ability to share a page easily with friends or colleagues. Usually this involves cutting and pasting links into emails so it’s a ‘share once and lost forever’ search experience.

If you and your friend are using HeyStaks, a Google search done by a friend will show your related finds highlighted in the results.

“Each stak is like a vertical search engine driven by Google. It is a very interesting way of parcelling up the search engine space.”

HeyStaks, which will go into private testing soon, is looking into revenue models which include branded ‘staks’ and advertising placed within these staks.

By Marie Boran

Pictured: Peter Briggs, Professor Barry Smyth and Dr Maurice Coyle, co-founders of UCD spin-out company HeyStaks

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