InfoSpace could be considered the Puget Sound Internet scene’s “Soul Survivor.” Without question, the company that today controls four of the Web’s leading search engines: WebCrawler, MetaCrawler, Excite and Dogpile, has weathered the kind of devastating storms that have shaken most Internet organizations to their foundations, and not without disruption or loss of jobs. But in rather stoic fashion, InfoSpace has managed to keep its soul intact, its heart beats on as a company that has evolved into a global leader in search engine technology. And, at long last, today’s market forces seem to be propelling, as opposed to pushing back on, the company’s initiatives.
The magic word for the new era of InfoSpace is “Meta.” (See our corresponding story in Ignoramus to learn more about what a MetaSearch Engine is or does.) In a nutshell, when you visit an InfoSpace MetaSearch Engine (or MSE, for short) and enter in a search query, you get back results from not merely one but all of the top search engine databases simultaneously. So instead of just retrieving AOL results or Google results (which ironically are exactly the same today – both being served by Google), InfoSpace presents you with results from Overture, Inktomi, Looksmart, AskJeeves, and more, including Google, all at the same time and on the same page. Yes, InfoSpace now does Google!
What this “Meta-monopoly” means for InfoSpace is that the company is uniquely positioned to benefit from the new era of search engine marketing where growing numbers of companies are only too happy to pay for guaranteed inclusion (paid-inclusion=PI) or enter into a P-P-C relationship (pay per click) a pay-for-performance advertising concept.
To get the scoop on some exciting new developments and explore the new sense of purpose emerging at InfoSpace, we sat down with Sr. PR Manager Steve Stratz, vice president and general manager of Search, Richard Pelly, and Cory Clennon, InfoSpace product manager for Search. Seek and you shall find.
Seattle24x7: While the battle is still being waged in terms of the financial outlook, it’s nice to see InfoSpace ramping up with so many new products and gaining such positive feedback from consumers?
Stratz: It’s been just about two years ago now since the merger between InfoSpace and Go2Net was completed. We went through a lot of growing pain bringing two companies of the same size together with lots of different focuses and then, having the Internet bubble burst. What’s happened in the past year or so is that we’ve retooled and focused on certain products within each of our three business units. For instance, for the Wireline Group, Search was determined to be the number one product. The planning was put into place to build on that commitment to Search and you’ve seen the fruits of that in the year 2002.
Seattle24x7: The Excite and WebCrawler portals were acquired by InfoSpace in early 2002 for $10 million, adding to Dogpile and MetaCrawler, two of the best known InfoSpace meta search engines.
Pelly: Right, today we have specific product managers looking at each of the products, analyzing clickthrough rates at different positions on the page, analyzing the result sets that we’re getting from different providers, adding new partners like Google and FAST and having Inktomi feeds come in. Besides our four sites, we also deliver our search product to sites like NBCi, Verizon’s DSL and Dial Up portal, CableVision’s OptOnline portal, Canada.com, a number of external sites. We hope to be able to announce other major partners down the road. Overall, InfoSpace Search is about having a real well-rounded product and being able to present it so that our users have a place where they can go and get more of the Web.
Seattle24x7: Paid-inclusion, which has rapidly transformed the economics of the search engine business model, has been embraced by Website owners looking for qualified leads from search engine referrals. InfoSpace has just launched its own paid-inclusion program with some very friendly advantages.
Pelly: I think what differentiates our program from the other players is that we’re introducing a standalone paid-inclusion database that we will query along with the other engines in our Meta Search model. Businesses are not going to have to compete against a FAST database of 2+ billion plus URL’s to be visible, their ability to be shown on our site is much greater than it is with the FAST product, the Inktomi product, or others. It allows small to mid-size companies to put a lot of URLs in place at a very inexpensive rate, and we’ve very pleased with the progress to date.
Seattle24x7: What’s the name of the program?
Clennon: It’s called Guaranteed Search Inclusion. The current version is for sites where you want to submit, say, 5-10 URLs. Later this year, we’ll also be coming out with a bulk inclusion product for larger companies. In that case, companies will actually develop an XML feed of their database and then send it our database.
Pelly: With Guaranteed Search Inclusion. you can add ten URL’s for around $99.00 which is very cost-efficient. For the same number of URL’s, Ask Jeeves would be just under $200. Inktomi over $250. And Alta Vista nearly $600.
Seattle24x7: How does the program work?
Clennon: When you sign up for the process online, you submit what your domain is and we spider your site and then come up with a list of all the URLs within your domain and then you can pick and choose what URL’s you want to have included.
Pelly: The kind of feedback we’re getting from users centers around “it seems that my results show up quicker because I’m not included in such a large database.”
Seattle24x7: Search results are most relevant to users when they are put in the proper context. For example, if I am looking to comparison shop between products or if I am conducting academic research, those are two completely different things. I understand InfoSpace has made some great inroads in this regard?
Stratz: In early May, we launched a new search product that our team spent six months developing. The whole basis of the product is whether or not you as a searcher are looking to buy something or whether you’re looking to research something. We determine when you type in your search words whether that is a commercial or non-commercial term. If you type in a term such as “Boat Parts,” that would obviously be considered a commercial term. But if you type in, say, “Boating History,” then you’re looking to do some research in regard to the history of boats. If it’s a commercial result, we blend more paid-results at the top. And if it’s a non-commercial term, we put more research results at the top.
Pelly: If it’s a commercial type query, what we do is try and present the result set so that we favor those who have paid for placements or who are in our paid-inclusion database. [After all,] E-commerce companies rely on these kinds of referrals and, at the same time, if we have a way to make money in the transaction we can grow, AND keep advertising off our site.
Seattle24x7: What is your opinion on the FTC’s Comments regarding greater disclosure on sites that feature paid-placement results?
Pelly: We’re taking it very seriously. Because we’re a meta-search, we allow users to search multiple search engines, directories, pay for performance properties, etc. We also call out who the provider is in case the user doesn’t know who the producer is. What we’re also doing to address this concern is explain what we’re doing in our results set. We’re going to have a link that reads “About these Results? Here’s what we do.” It’s going to be very clear that we have both paid and non-paid results.
Seattle24x7: What kind of retooling effort occurred when you took over Excite? Have you been able to keep it Excite-ing?
Pelly: I think it’s more exciting now because it’s a meta-search engine. Long time Excite users haven’t noticed any usage changes. It feels just like it did when it was Excite.com. But now we have a Meta-Search product there and the new commercial vs. non-commercial features that we launched in May which is ideal for that audience. Excite users are very savvy. They’ve been on the Web for a very long time. We needed to put a really good product in front of them.
Seattle24x7: What are the challenges ahead in branding Meta-Search and your search properties?
Pelly: We’ve done studies on “meta-search” and what the concept means to people and we found that 86% of people had no idea what the heck it was. Once they were informed, 84% said, “Wow, what a great concept!” What does that tell us? We need to get out there and be do some things on a more aggressive marketing front. We’re going to announce some partnerships in Q4 that are going to generate a lot of awareness.
Stratz: There also need to be education taking place. Most people don’t understand search. My Mom called me the other day and was asking me, “How do I find Frigidaires on the Web?” Well, what search engine are you at, Mom? “Well, where do I go? What do I type in? Where do I type in?” My Mom is an avid E-Bay user but she finds stuff on E-bay by going through the directory tree. If you can imagine the nightmare of that.
Seattle24x7: It’s been great talking Shop with you and also meeting your mascots.
Stratz: Hunter the Spider is always happy to talk about search engines. So is Arfie the dog at Dogpile. Arfie is the soul of the site.
Larry Sivitz is the Managing Editor of Seattle24x7.