Blekko.com Taps Users to Narrow Results, Avoid Spam Sites
By AMIR EFRATI
Google Inc.’s dominant position in Web search isn’t deterring other entrants. The latest, Blekko Inc., hopes to attract users by narrowing search results.
The start-up, which formally is starting its service Monday, hopes to limit the number of spam or low-quality websites that show up for searches in categories such as health, cars and personal finance.
Gaining a significant share in search—a market that generates more than $10 billion in advertising revenue annually in the U.S.—is a long shot. But some Internet analysts have voiced praise for Blekko.com, which has raised $24 million from venture-capital firms and well-known angel investors Ron Conway and Marc Andreessen.
Credit: Bloomberg News
Blekko CEO Rich Skrenta.
The problem with Google, according to Blekko and some industry analysts, is a proliferation of search results of dubious quality. Sites listed often are filled with content whose source is unclear.
Blekko, while using a Google-style search algorithm, relies on users to select which websites should appear in results for certain queries. That way, users can narrow searches to a slice of the Web—for example, a collection of hand-picked sites that are politically liberal, or those devoted exclusively to baseball.
As the number of Web pages reaches one trillion, “there is an acceleration of spam,” said Rich Skrenta, Blekko’s chief executive. “We’re cleaning this up … using large-scale human curation” that promotes “trusted” content.
Queries that Blekko identifies as being health-related, for example, are limited to 76 authoritative information sources. So searching “cure for cold,” for example, generates links to sites such as MedicineNet.com, WebMD.com and MedlinePlus, a site affiliated to the National Institutes of Health. On Google, the top 10 search results include links to lesser-known sites such as essortment.com, manageyourlifenow.com and home-remedies-for-you.com.
On the other hand, while Google might return some less-reliable sources, its results attempt to offer direct advice that a cold sufferer can use. Blekko’s sources, while more authoritative, also feel more academic, addressing studies on zinc’s effectiveness or why vitamin C may not be effective.
Over the past few months, users in a private test of Blekko have created more than 3,000 collections of sites that people can search through by typing a so-called slash-tag and topic next to their search query. For example, typing “bottles/wine” limits searches only to wine sites such as WineSpectator.com. Blekko automatically triggers such limited searches for queries it identifies as being related to health, colleges, lyrics and several other popular topics.
Mr. Skrenta said Blekko’s initial goal is to identify the 50 best sites on the Web for the top 100,000 search categories. Its use of volunteers to identify those sites is modeled after Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia.
Danny Sullivan, who edits the Search Engine Land blog, said that “for the most part, Google works.” But he said that Web-search quality “seems to be a little worse than it has in the past,” in part because of spam. He said he is guardedly optimistic that Blekko “will pick up a loyal following” and grab several percentage points of market share.
A Google spokesman declined to comment on such criticisms. “We welcome competition that helps deliver useful information to users and expands user choice,” the spokesman said.
Google in 2008 tried to give users more control over which sites turned up in their search results, with a feature called SearchWiki that allowed users to rerank, delete or add results for their own searches. The feature was abandoned this year in favor of allowing users with a Google account to mark search results they like with a star.
There have been many attempts to directly challenge Google, with Microsoft Corp.’s Bing gaining some traction in recent years. Google powers nearly 70% of U.S. searches, while Bing handles nearly 20% and IAC/InterActiveCorp.‘s Ask.com accounts for nearly 4% of the market, according to comScore Inc.
Some start-ups have found the going tough. Cuil, a search company started by former Google engineers, was shut down in September after a two-year run and $33 million in funding.
But others are pressing ahead, including start-ups that rely on users to create content and organize information on the Web. Entrants in that category include Quora.com, which which began service publicly in June, and Mahalo.com, which opened in 2007.
In the 1990s, Blekko’s Mr. Skrenta cofounded NewHoo, a human-edited directory of the Web that was later sold to Netscape and renamed the Open Directory Project. Today Google occasionally uses the site to fill information gaps in some of Google’s search results.
Blekko—which takes the name Mr. Skrenta gave to his personal computer in college—employs 22 people, including former Google and Yahoo Inc. search engineers. He says his goal for the company is to become the No. 3 search engine.