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Become.com, a search engine to shop with

become_home_nb.gifWe know what you‚re thinking: „Ohmygod, not another search engine, and especially not another shopping engine.š Well, we feel your pain, so we‚re going to ask for some patience with Become.com. It has a lot of promise, and we‚ll explain why.

Become.com is one of the first search engines we‚ve seen with a laser-like focus on (1) helping people comparison shop, while at the same time (2) using a clean search engine algorithm Ų free of paid placements, etc Ų to help people research products. In other words, Become.com is turning the tables on Google -- by doing what Google does for general search, but doing it only for shopping. And notably, it‚s removing some of the „crudš that has crept into Google‚s search results over the past year or two.

For now, Become is a search engine that's best suited for researching product reviews. But the site will eventually evolve into a full-fledged comparison shopping site, pulling in product feeds from vendors in much the same way as Shopping.com or other shopping sites.

We tested Become.com against Google this weekend, because one of us (Matt) just moved into a new home, and needed to shop for replacements of broken or grotty things he‚d thrown out from the last house. First, we tried „Cuisinart frying pans,š hoping to find out more about frying pans and whether the Cuisinart model we'd heard about was any good. So we typed it into Google, and noticed that the first five lines are advertisements or otherwise information from particular vendors. True, these did carry prices. Two of them were paid listings at the top of the page. The next three came under „product search results,š items being hawked by particular vendors. Only on the seventh line down on the page, though, did we finally get to Google's core results. There, Google worked pretty well. The first entry was a review of frying pans from Epinions, where you finally get some real comparison firepower. When we typed the same term into Become.com, the Epinions review came up first Ų no advertisements in the way. To be sure, Epinions carries the adwords advertisements on the right-hand side, just as Google does. But it did help to have the clutter removed.

We typed in kitchen knives and you get similar results. The first four results at Become.com were product review type results Ų exactly what we wanted. Using Google, we can‚t complain, though. Our eyes have been trained to realize there are several advertisements and other listings in the way, but even the results seemed more cluttered than Become.com‚s Ų at least if all you‚re really wanting to do is shop. The first Google result, for example, was a shopping site that said on its home page it was closed for vacation. Become.com produced review pages for the first four of its results. We also tried local search for a niche item „Granite sealant Fremont Californiaš and switched in „sealerš instead of „sealantš as an alternative, and both search engines performed poorly.

Become.com's two founders, Michael Yang and Yeogirl Yun (who were the founders of MySimon) say the merchant data feeds they'll begin accepting over the coming months will generate photos to be listed to the right of the text results --for instance, a specific Canon model might appear under a search for "camera." Clicking then allows a user to drill down to see price comparisons from different vendors, merchant ratings, user reviews and so on. They‚re still debating how those feeds will be ranked, and whether or not merchants will be able to pay money to get their products ranked higher. Though here Yun interjects: „We‚re not going to compromise our integrity,š he said. „Our saying is: őBe good, do good,‚š a slight rub on Google‚s „Do no evil,š which doesn‚t stress doing good per se.

To be clear, none of this is to say that Google‚s results are inferior for "general" users. Google still ranks its main results based on the best algorithm the industry‚s supposed brightest engineers can come up with -- for determining general relevance. That includes the number of links a page is getting from other authoritative sites, for example. But Become.com dispenses with trying to reach general users, and assumes people are shopping. It removes all the non-shopping related pages while searching the Web („Becomebot,š as it is known, crawls 2.2 billion pages, according to Yang. That's less than Google's 8 billion, but then Become is only sifting through shopping-related sites). At the same time, Become tweaks its algorithm to rank certain shopping guide and product review sites higher in importance, including CNet, Gizmodo, Epinions and so on. Yang said he noticed that many consumer reports weren‚t coming up in Google results. In other words, he and Yun are blatant about the human input part of their algorithm: Humans, not computers, keep assessing results for relevance to the shopping experience, and then making changes as necessary, he says. „Google relies 100 percent on computers.''

When you meet the Become.com‚s founders, Yang strikes you as steady and calm. Yun, the CTO, though is a different story. He's quiet at first, but you can almost see the smoke billowing up from his head -- his flitting eyes belying what's probably a 10 gigahertz speed brain underneath.

These guys seem to have the chemistry down, evidenced by their building, and then selling of MySimon, a comparison search site, to CNet in early 2000 for $700 million (the two founders owned a 30 percent share of the company between them, though the $700 million shrank substantially as the bubble burst, and their CNet shares declined along with).

Both founders, newly wealthy, took some time off and did some soul searching, they said. Yun tried law school, and Yang tried the ministry, among other things Ų but both realized it was futile to stay away from business. „My place is in the business world,š says Yang, who said he likes to encourage and support to others in his faith, but is not cut out for the ministry himself. Entrepreneurism is really what drives him: „I figured it is part of a calling.š Yun was active in business all along. He founded a company called Wisenut, and sold it in April 2002 to LookSmart, though it was by no means a hit. He also founded Korea Wisenut, made it profitable, prepared it to go public on the Korean stock exchange, and brought in management to care for it as he studied for the Korean bar exam, he said.

That‚s when, in Oct, 2003, Yang called Yun to suggest they start a search engine focused on shopping. Yun protested, saying he‚d had only modest success with his past ventures, and that Google was already too strong. Yang begged for 30 minutes of Yun‚s time, but when he flew over to meet Yun, the chat turned into a six-hour marathon dinner Ų where they sketched out their idea.

By summer of last year, they‚d incorporated their company, and raised $2.5 million from a series of angel investors, including Bob Bozeman and Ron Conway. Yang fronted another $2 million himself, for a total of $4.5 million. They‚ve got 25 employees, mostly engineers, out of their Mountain View office. They‚ve been working on Become for nine months, and opened the site to public use about two weeks ago. They‚ve made no announcement about it. You have to register once, before using it in beta.

We'll be interested to see how this pans out.



Comments

How can you claim "a laser-like focus on helping people comparison shop" when the search results don't include prices?

I'll stick with nextag.com.

Anonymous Techie on February 23, 2005 6:27 PM
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Did you use the main Google search engine or Froogle?

Miles Barr on February 24, 2005 3:36 AM
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Used Google. As Anon suggests, price listings right now are best found elsewhere. Froogle is one example. Taking "shopping" more broadly defined, including reviews, etc, as the measure, the Beyond.com founders say Google's main engine will be their stiffest competition.

Matt Marshall on February 24, 2005 6:22 AM
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Any reason why you didn't also try these queries on Yahoo? Per your criteria, "Cuisinart frying pans" has great results; "kitchen knives" not so good.

Durf on February 24, 2005 10:11 AM
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I still really like http://www.addall.com for comparison book shopping.

Edward Miller on February 28, 2005 3:16 PM
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