In the past few months, while researching for this site’s various interviews, I’ve found Kosmix to be quite effective in providing me with a great deal of background for questions. Curious to learn more about the helpful web presence, I contacted its staff for an email interview. They were quite open to the idea and put me in contact with Kosmix Co-Founder Venky Harinarayan. Here’s the official bio for Harinarayan from Kosmix: “Venky Harinarayan and his business partner Anand Rajaraman co-founded Kosmix in 2005 with the vision to connect people to the information that makes a difference in their lives. Together with Anand, Venky developed the first ecommerce search engine, Junglee, which was acquired by Amazon.com in 1998 for $250 million. At Amazon, Venky and Anand created the company’s search and marketplace business. In addition to Kosmix, Venky is a principal at Cambrian Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm. He is a graduate of Stanford University and the Indian Institute of Technology.” Regular readers know I typically run my interviews on late Wednesday evenings, but I so enjoyed the amount of ground we covered with this particular exchange, I opted to post it a day early. My thanks to Harinarayan for his time.
Tim O’Shea: Recently at the Kosmix blog, there was a mention of Sean Parker’s October speech, where one of his points about the future of the Internet was “Parker argues that the next phase is about building connections between people and things.” Is Kosmix’s acquisition of Cruxlux an effort to do just that–build stronger connections between people and things?
Venky Harinarayan: Absolutely. At Kosmix, our mission is to connect people to the information that makes a difference in their lives. Our acquisition of Cruxlux fits perfectly with that vision.
In the early days, the Internet was about finding information, not about connecting people. Now with the advent of sites like Facebook and Twitter, the Web has an amazing capacity to illuminate social networks. Interacting with other people has moved to the forefront our online activities. The next step will be to connect people with information that matters to them—without you having to search for it.
We’ve made progress in this area with www.Meehive.com, our personalized news site. You tell MeeHive your interests, and then the system scours millions of news outlets and blogs to bring you fresh stories about the people and things you want to follow. For example, if you’re passionate about Broadway theatre, MeeHive will let you know every time there’s a review of a new musical, or breaking news about your favorite playwright’s latest work. Facebook is about what you’re up to, and Kosmix and MeeHive are about what you’re into.
O’Shea: Jeff Bezos, through Bezos Expeditions, is a major investor in Kosmix. In fact, he is also on the board of Kosmix. How does Kosmix management utilize the expertise of its board members (like Bezos) to help the company in its future planning?
Harinarayan: Jeff has supported Kosmix since the beginning, and we deeply value our relationship with him. He’s a private investor in the company, and is not part of our board. We initially starting working with Jeff when Amazon acquired our company, Junglee, which was the first search engine for shopping.
O’Shea: According to a March 2009 Forbes article: “Kosmix has seen its market-share grow 730% year-over-year.” In what ways do you hope to grow in 2010?
Harinarayan: We anticipate continued growth for 2010. We began 2009 by launching Kosmix.com, and the growth curve has been steep. In the coming year, our users can expect to see some interesting additions to the way we enable them to tap into the Deep Web, which is the portion of the Internet that is invisible to traditional search engines. This includes things like social networks, media-sharing sites for photos and videos, library catalogs, airline reservation systems, phone books, and all kinds of scientific databases. We’ll also be adding some great real-time Web features, to let people receive content and information as soon as it’s posted online.
O’Shea: What is it about the Kosmix concept that makes it a more effective search tool than more established search options like Google or Yahoo?
Harinarayan: From our perspective, there are two navigation paradigms on the Web: Search and Browse.
Search lets you find specific bits of information or navigate to sites you already know. Search engines like Google are great if you want to find something specific, like a phone number for your local pizza place or the train schedule. You know exactly what you’re looking for, and search engines will take you there directly.
These search engines break down, however, when you want to browse and explore the Web. You’re planning a trip to Kauai and want to know what to do when you’re there; or your kids are huge fans of Taylor Swift, and you want to find out more about her; or someone in your family has been diagnosed with breast cancer, and you want to learn all you can about the disease. In these cases, a list of millions of blue links isn’t very helpful.
That’s where Kosmix comes in. We organize the Web by topic to give you a 360 degree view—so you get a much for visual way to explore the Web. If you look up “Kauai” on Kosmix, we’ll show you videos of top attractions, reviews of the best rated hotels and restaurants on the island, tips from fellow travelers, hot deals from local resorts, and much more. In the “Taylor Swift” example, we’ll let you listen to her songs, check out her videos, tell you when she’ll next in concert and recommend similar music that may interest you as well. Our page on breast cancer, in contrast, will give you an overview of the condition, connect you to support groups, offer statistics about the disease and bring you the latest research from top physicians in the field.
Here’s a quick way to think about the difference: Use Google to FIND something, use Kosmix to FIND OUT about something.
O’Shea: In terms of search performance and metrics, where has Kosmix made its most effective improvements/strides to date in 2009?
Harinarayan: Relevance has been a major focus for us this year. It essential that we bring you the best sites and the best content on the Web, regardless of what topic you’re looking for. So, in the examples above, we’ll make sure content from the Center for Disease Control and articles from the Mayo Clinic appear on the Breast Cancer page, and that content from MTV appears on our Taylor Swift page.
Unlike Google, we’re not going to show you millions of links for each topic—we only show you the best content from the most trusted sites online. To do that effectively, the relevance on the page needs to be top-notch. We bring you the best content, based on what your query is.
O’Shea: As companies like Kosmix seek to seemingly redefine Internet search techniques, do you think these kinds of changes may ultimately influence how the Internet evolves going forward?
Harinarayan: Absolutely. Central to what we do is the anticipation of a fundamental change in what people expect when they go online, and how the Web connects people to information.
Until now, most of what makes a search engine work is the searcher himself or herself. Think about it: You type “Coldplay” into Google, and you get 27 million results. It’s up to you to quickly scroll through the first few pages of links and find the link that matches what you’re looking for most closely. The search engine provides 10% of the intelligence, and you provide the other 90%.
So, what we’re asking here at Kosmix is, how do we turn this around? How can we bring information to you, wherever you are, whenever it’s relevant? You shouldn’t have to go online to hunt for content; it should come to you, when you are most likely to need or want that information. In the Coldplay example, you might get an alert on your mobile device that said, “Hey, there’s a surprise Coldplay concert happening tonight in a club in your city—you may want to check it out.” That message is personalized to your interests and location, and is potentially much, much more valuable to you than a list of links to the Coldplay fan site or a Wikipedia definition of the band.
O’Shea: As noted by the Kosmix blog in late September, Jeremy Liew, the managing director of Lightspeed Venture Partners–one of Kosmix’s key investors–recently wrote a piece, In Search of the Next Ad Network Breakthrough. How can Kosmix and/or its users hope to benefit from following trends like that?
Harinarayan: Consumers don’t want to be bombarded by irrelevant ads. Our first priority is always our users, and so we’ve created an ad model that is meant to be as helpful and meaningful for our users as it is for the advertisers. We have whnt we call “Sponsored Modules” which strive to give users offers in context. For example, if you’re checking out “Mercedes C Class” on Kosmix, the sponsored module might show you car listings for the Mercedes C Class on Vast.com. These types of ads are highly effective, because they reach the user at the moment when he is most engaged in that particular topic.
O’Shea: How much has MeeHive helped to elevate Kosmix’s profile since its introduction in March of this year?
Harinarayan: MeeHive has been well-received since we introduced the site earlier this year. We’re currently a finalist for Mashable’s OpenWeb Award for Best Online Newspaper, shortlisted alongside the New York Times and the Huffington Post. It’s very exciting to see a new media model like MeeHive gain this kind of traction.
We find that the average MeeHive user tracks about 20 different interests, and more than 50% of users prefer to use MeeHive on their iPhones.
Harinarayan: We aim to give users a snapshot of the best of the Web, for any topic. To do this, we choose our sources based on a combination of algorithmic relevance and editorial judgment. That said, we’re always interested to hear from our users, if they have specific sites they would like to see us include into Kosmix. Send us any and all feedback—we love it!