When searching for something specific, like "Pizza San Francisco" or "Piano instructors, Manhattan," using Google like the Yellow Pages is commonplace. But when searching for unknown or hard-to-put-your-finger-on information, it's more an act of browsing.
When browsing for a topic, say "Calvin & Hobbes," Google or other search engines aren't very useful in providing a 360 degree view of what's available on the Web. That's where Kosmix comes in.
"Topics are areas where search doesn’t do a good job on. They do a great job when you have a simple question for which you want an answer. When you have an open-ended exploration process, that’s what we want to get into," said Venky Harinarayan, co-founder of Kosmix, in the first part of our interview series. "It’s less about producing the better 10 links; it’s more about giving you the best experience."
Kosmix is one of the emerging search-related companies trying to aggregate and organize the Web beyond links. Another company trying to improve our search and browsing experience is Searchme. (See Google's Marissa Mayer review the site as our Vator Box guest host.)
Clearly, Kosmix has convinced investors that it's worth betting on. Last month, Kosmix raised $20 million in a Series D round of funding, led by Time Warner Investments. Existing partners, Accel Partners, Lightspeed Venture Partners and DAG Ventures, also participated. Kosmix raised the round before the "world came crashing down," ensuring an upround to its valuation. All told, Kosmix has raised $55 million.
Kosmix is a mix of Wikipedia meets Answers.com meets search. Its well-crafted magazine about what's happening across the Web is a welcome experience to the standard links that appear on search results pages.
Indeed, Harinarayan sees Kosmix as a one-stop resource for someone seeking to write a book report about a topic. All the available information - from images, video, search results, definitions - are in one place.
"You want them to express their intent, and you want to give a view of what's happening on the Web," he said. "Be a guide about topics on the Web."
While focusing on topics may help Kosmix attract advertising, topics often abstract what a person is realling looking for. How do you get to what’s really relevant? I asked.
"The notion of relevance has to change when you talk about browse and explore," said Harinarayan. The notion of relevance for search is one right answer. For browse, there’s no one right answer, he explained. "It’s more about organization as opposed to relevance."
How do you determine what’s best for the end user? I asked.
"Fundamental to our product is a categorization engine," he said. Given any topic, there are many connections. For instance, Kosmix knows to display an NFL widget if someone is searching for San Francisco 49ers. In fact, if you look at Topix, every service or Web page, such as YouTube, Google and Flickr, are widgets on Kosmix.
Now, I'm pretty skeptical when it comes to newcomers trying to eat away at Google's monopoly. But after doing a number of live demos in this interview and after learning more about Kosmix, it's clear that it does offer a different experience and value proposition over a search engine.