Jon Glick is in the house. Become.com, the new shopping focused vertical search engine, sent out a press release last Tuesday officially announcing the addition of Jon Glick to their team. He’s actually been in their house since Groundhog Day but delayed the announcement so his hiring or presence wouldn’t overshadow the launch of Become.com’s public beta version in mid-March.
Jon Glick was the guy who whipped AltaVista, AllTheWeb, and the Inktomi database into Yahoo’s proprietary search engine when he was the Senior Manager of Search at Yahoo. Now, he is in charge of building a search tool he believes will alter the way search engine users relate to information and its retrieval.
Become.com is, arguably, the most prominent new example of a vertical search engine; a sub-section of search Glick expects will be increasingly adopted by search users. Unlike its traditional cousins Google, Yahoo, MSN and Ask Jeeves, Become.com has a “…laser focus on shopping and buying decisions.” As an example, Glick asked me during a telephone interview to use the keyword “Television” at Google and Become. Ten different TV networks comprised the first page of Google results. Given the generality of the query, the results are more than acceptable, with a notable exception. If I were a consumer looking to purchase a television, the organic results Google returned would be of little use to me. The paid AdWords results on the right of screen were fully comprised of product information and, if I were actually looking to purchase a television, would have returned results more relevant to my intent. Become.com wishes to serve similar product-driven results in its organic (free) listings.
Like his new employer, Glick believes that consumers are ill served by traditional search engines. His task at Yahoo was to break Google’s hegemony in the search market, a goal that involved planting seeds (merging all Yahoo search divisions) and helping to open the field to others such as Ask Jeeves and MSN. While Google continues to dominate, its virtual monopoly has been breached. He left Yahoo because he “… wanted to work on the next generation of search technology.” Vertical search, in Glick’s world, is the next big thing.
Verticalization is all about targeting a topic. Since Become.com is all about shopping and consumer information, it is easier to gauge the context of search queries. When a search is conducted at Become.com, the searcher wants to buy something. In other words, the search engine is not being assumptive when it presents a thousand and one web sites pushing products when I type in “television”. When you go into a building that is clearly marked “SHOPPING”, is a salesperson assumptive in approaching you? Traditional search engines, in the eyes of the vertical sector are clearly marked “LIBRARY” or “GENERAL INFORMATION”. Having worked the other side of the fence at Yahoo, Glick recalls the difficulties in striving to best assume the context of unique search queries.
The challenge of contextualization is one of the biggest issues in search. The Internet is becoming a much more complex environment as it evolves and Glick doesn’t believe the traditional search engines are really ready for the sector-segmentation he thinks will develop as the various web communities organize themselves. “Google Page Rank and Kleinberg derived algorithms that look at links. What they don’t do well is look at the context within the page. It is very difficult to contextualize with older search systems.”
Become has developed a newer algorithm it calls AIR (Affinity Index Ranking). According to Become’s Chief Technical Officer, Yeogirl Yun, “AIR is significantly more advanced than that hilltop algorithm [Google]. AIR evaluates connectivity between all pages in a given topic. Rather than focusing on “top of the hill” sites, AIR understands the overall network of sites within a topical area. Both in-links and out-links are evaluated to understand the level of interconnection among the sites. Advanced mathematics and concepts from Applied Physics and Engineering Dynamics are used to calculate specific scores.” [ed note: Become.com plans to publish a plain-language version of this statement when it leaves the BETA stage in mid-April but refuses to elaborate at this point.] Glick sees AIR as the “… next generation of analysis past Page Rank.”
Websites are included in Become’s database via spidering, much as they are introduced to the databases of Google, Yahoo, MSN and Ask Jeeves. Webmasters will likely have noticed incidents of Become’s spiders in their logs in recent weeks.
Become.com will be out-of-BETA in mid-April. It has been operational in the last stage of its beta-phase for about seven weeks now and is open for use by registered users. When it leaves beta, the mandatory registration will be lifted. Currently Become does not use profiling to tailor results though the option will be open to users in the future with the introduction of features such as a personal Wish List that will fetch information for consumers as it becomes available online.
Become.com will also limit itself to serving the United States market for the present time though it has pre-reserved domain names for expansion internationally. Its technology is universally scalable and could be used for other forms of vertical search beyond a focus on shopping. As it expands, Become is rumoured to be developing products and features designed to directly compete with features offered by Google, Yahoo, MSN and other search tools.
This has been an exciting first quarter with great changes continuing at a breakneck pace. 2005 is turning into another Year-of-the-Startup and those years have a way of introducing fundamental changes to the Internet environment.
It is obviously an exciting time for Jon Glick and his new colleagues at Become.com, “Become, as a new company being able to start with fresh technology, has the ability to change search paradigms people have been using for past six years. We wish to change way people relate to search and search engines.”
The jury is still out on the impact the concept Vertical Search will have on consumer behaviours and search engine advertisers. I suspect that regardless of the fate of a concept, SEOs and SEMs will become very interested in understanding Affinity Index Ranking as it’s full-release version is about to become the brains behind the veil at Become.com.