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Kosmix raises cash for a new search engine -- to compete with Google

Updated

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If there's anyone itching to take on Google, it is the two Indian guys who went to Stanford with Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Meet Anand Rajaraman and Venky Harinarayan, two of the co-founders at Junglee, and who twice seriously considered acquiring Google in its early days, but decided their friend Brin was too bold, if not arrogant, to deal with.

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Venky
Now they plan to officially launch an ambitious search engine company, Kosmix at the Demo conference to begin the week of Feb 6 in Phoenix. They've also raised $7.4 million in venture capital.


They are making an audaciously risky bet that they can crack the code on a vexing problem in search: finding the meaning, or at least the topic of a Web page. "This is an unsolved problem on the Web," says Harinarayan, from his office perched on the seventh floor of a Mountain View high-rise. His window commands a sweeping view of the valley, stretching out over toward the Googleplex, just three miles away.

It's as though Harinarayan is still keeping a eagle eye on his erstwhile Stanford buddies.

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Anand
More later on the friendly but competitive relationship with the Google guys. For now, Kosmix is betting its deep technology can help improve upon Google's one-size-fits-all approach for many types of...

searches. Google may work well when you're looking for a specific answer. But what if there's no one right answer? This is where Kosmix wants to help you, by searching the entire web and narrowing the results to the particular area you are interested in -- and then giving you a choice of answers.

Kosmix isn't the first to latest to help users search by topic. You've got things like Become.com for shopping. You've got got Mobissimo for travel, Trulia for real estate and Healthline for health, and so on.

But Rajaraman and Harinarayan claim most of these other sites crawling only 500 or so Web sites relevant to their niches. Kosmix, like Google and Yahoo, is crawling and indexing the entire Web. It has come up with its own technology to rank pages by category, instead of by keyword.

Let's take an example Harinarayan gave us. Say you are suffering from ACL, a common knee injury prevalent among skiers. Type in "ACL" into Google, and you get mostly irrelevant pages. Try narrowing your search by typing "ACL knee" and you still get quirky results like one from www.financeprofessor. You might eventually find some good pages, but you're often at a loss for what else is out there on your topic.

So type in ACL into Kosmix's health engine, and you'll get relevant pages straight off, but also a helpful categorization of results along the left-hand column, for example: "definition," "causes," "treatments," and "blogs" and "message boards." Harinarayan doesn't mind boasting: "What you can get with five minutes at this site, is a hundred times what you can get at Google." It even provides a category for alternative medicine. Harinarayan remarks: "You wouldn't even know to ask about that at Google."

Here's the ACL example (click to enlarge):

To organize its results, Kosmix doesn't use pagerank -- or popularity, based on the number links to a page. Kosmix decided pagerank is inefficient when it comes to categories. "There is no affinity to topic, when you are ranking by raw popularity," says Harinarayan.

Instead, Kosmix looks at what pages that link to other pages are saying -- to take a bigger stab at judging the meaning or subject of the page. If the linking page is saying something similar to the page it links to, you can begin getting at its meaning, or at least muster up enough information to categorize it by topic. Harinarayan calls it "category rank." Kosmix is essentially tagging pages with categories. "Auto-tagging the Web," as Harinarayan puts it.

Kosmix has started with a health search, but will soon roll out travel and politics search, and will follow with a rolling thunder of scores of other types of searches, Harinarayan says.

This is not lightweight stuff. They have filed patents, and there's tons of math in their algorithms, Harinarayan says. They've hired 20 people, including PhDs from Stanford, experts from IBM Almaden, and their chief technology officer and vice president of biz development both come from Yahoo. They've been working away for about a year.

They've raised $7.4M from Lightspeed Venture Partners and Cambrian, which is their own venture firm. They had an earlier seed round of $700K, which includes money from Amazon's chief executive, Jeff Bezos.

(Update: Business model? Same as Google. Kosmix will run ads along the right-hand side, which it will start running more actively after the launch at Demo. Right now, it is running Google adwords.)

Harinarayan concedes Kosmix doesn't have all the answers. "We've taken the first real leap at solving this problem," he said. "We haven't solved it entirely." And there's the conundrum of figuring out how to present all the "flavored" search options to users, once Kosmix rolls them out over the next few months, Harinarayan says.

It has been a twisting road for this duo, and the Google guys have always been there to taunt them. As we reported once before, Harinarayan shared an office with Brin while at Stanford, and remembers thinking he was one of the smartest guys at Stanford. Early on, Rajaraman's cubicle in the common study area, known as the ''Zoo,'' was next to Brin's. In 1994, Rajaraman proudly told Brin he'd acquired a new computer with the latest version of Microsoft Windows. Brin said Microsoft was ''lame,'' went over to Rajaraman's apartment and installed Linux -- a free open-source operating system then almost unheard of -- on his computer.

Brin even took on Rajaraman's practice of eating vegetarian, a family tradition. One evening, Brin went over to Rajaraman's apartment, baked a fish in his oven, and served it to him with some lemon. Rajaraman ate it.

And the tough thing is, Brin was the young guy, the whippersnapper: "The joke was, we couldn't go to bars with him, he was underage," Harinarayan recalled during an interview a few years ago.

But the thing that may really stick in the Kosmix guys' craw is how they almost merged with the Google guys in the early days. Rajaraman and Harinarayan were co-founders of Junglee, an early Web database company, and the Junglee guys were considered role models -- they were the first in their Stanford department to launch an Internet company.

Harinarayan once mused to us: "I wish we䴜d gotten Sergey into Junglee." It was close. They'd wanted to approach Sergey Brin, who was in early days forming Google with Page, and considered talks to acquire Google. Their advisor, Jeff Ullman, a professor at Stanford, had suggested it. But they ever got very far because Brin was so brashly confident.

But they got their opportunity again when the Junglee guys, having been acquired by Amazon, came down in 1999 to talk more seriously with Google about an acquisition.

Rajaraman recalls how Google was still not very big, employing only around 50 people: "And we kind of asked, at that point, 'Sergey, if Amazon were to buy you guys, what sort of price would you sell for?" I remember Sergey telling me: 'The only kind of price we'd accept would be something with ten digits [billions].' If he'd said nine digits, we might have talked."

Oops.

Anyway, after Amazon, the Rajaraman and Harinarayan raised a small venture capital fund in 2000, and invested in several companies from their Mountain View office. They scored at leat one big hit with Neoteris, and have several others remaining in their portfolio -- which they continue to manage. But after investing most of that first fund, they've decided not to raise another one, having been bitten by the bug last year to launch Kosmix, Harinarayan explained.

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Update: Here's some initial feedback from the experts.

Gary Price, over at Search Engine Watch says he hasn't looked at Kosmix yet, but he's looked at clustering efforts. Determining the "aboutness" of a web page, book or article is something that librarians and catalogers have been "struggling with and writing about for years," he notes.

Perhaps the biggest challenge that Kosmix has -- and it is shared by similar theme-oriented engines such as Clusty, FirstGov, AskJeeves with their "Zoom" feature, etc -- is to educate its users. "It's cool stuff, but unless you know how to use it then it's a waste of space," Price says. "That said, as a search trainer, a little education goes a long way."

As for Kosmix, Price says it looks similar to what Northern Light was doing.

They had a staff of knowledge experts and librarians (I was a consultant) building the vocab and then letting the tech map the pages to the right category(s). Depending on the specificity of the vocab, building and maintaining one is a huge job. However, I for one am a strong believer in them for specialty tools. One thing they do need to do is offer what are called glosses, definitions of what different categories mean.

Danny Sullivan, Gary's colleague, expresses some skepticism:

Overall, we think clustering is cool -- but sadly, to date users aren't really responding to it. They'll just look at the main results. And while ACL at Kosmix looks great because they've told you to think about it in terms of a particular injury, over at Google, you can see it might actually mean other things.

That means to grow and really compete with Google, they have to show you a wide range of matches then hope you will narrow down into topical areas. But if those matches aren't good off the bat (where popularity ranking can help), then they've got problems.

Overall, I won't be surprised if the technology helps them roll out some high quality verticals. I'd be very surprised if they jumped in to really oust any of the major search players.

Charlene Li, of Forrester Research, just got back to us, after sitting down with the Kosmix folks. She echoes Sullivan's view that Kosmix might be well placed to offer some good topical search engines, because Google isn't focusing on that. "I think they're going to do great," she said.

On the other hand, Kosmix probably won't succeed in becoming a more general search, she said. "I don't agree with them on that," she said. "If they remain focused on verticals, they'll have a fighting chance." She also refers to the user-education problem. If you roll out too many specialized searches, a user gets paralyzed. If they're looking for information on baby shoes, will they look at Kosmix's health search, its fashion search, or "caring for kids" search?



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Comments

Ahem, business model? Is there one? What is it? More facts, please. And please don't say Google Ads.

Curious George on January 27, 2006 9:17 AM
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Ahem, yes, very good point. Yes, it is ad-based. I have updated the post. It is indeed Google Ads right now, but they will launch ads more ambitiously at Demo, they say.

Matt Marshall on January 27, 2006 9:28 AM
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It appears they are try to find better results when looking for niche searches.

A website already does this.

It simply groups the best of breed search engines together.

That website is yumgo www.yumgo.co.uk

yumgo@yumgo.co.uk on January 27, 2006 12:03 PM
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Try www.clusty.com with the same parameters, ACL Knee. Exact same results & categorization.

Mike on January 27, 2006 12:11 PM
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"..crack the code on a vexing problem in search.."
Way to go guys. Just do it. Competition always brings the best things out for us. :)

regards,
jane

BlogContestSite.com on January 27, 2006 12:43 PM
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Clusty's approach is limited because they only look at the first few hundred results. Try a search for the keyword "acl" and a topic tag of "health" on Dumbfind. I believe the results speak for themselves.

www.dumbfind.com

dumbfounder on January 27, 2006 1:26 PM
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Chris, I just tried out your search engine. It blows away Clusty. How long did it take you to put this thing together? It is awesome. Pete.

Matt, you should take a serious look at Dumbfind. I think they are already doing what these guys are going to try to do!! Pete

Peter Murray on January 27, 2006 1:48 PM
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Yeah, the Kosmix guys were telling me Clusty is ok, but it still tries to give you one set of search results. So if try looking at the subject categories it gives you for ACL -- it gives you vague things like "control" or "league." I think the Kosmix guys are saying they want to give you flavored searches from the beginning, so you don't run into the one-size-fits-all problem. However, their challenge is to figure out how to give people these different flavors in an easy way. Are they going to use tabs, so that you can pick on "travel," "health" or "real estate" searches? They haven't answered how they plan the user interface going forward. They freely admit, that is their challenge.

Matt Marshall on January 27, 2006 2:04 PM
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Matt, Clusty is one thing, but if you take a close look at dumbfind.com which just launched the other day, I think they are streets ahead of where kosmix hope to be in a few months. You should take a look at. I think dumbfounder and his guys are on to something here. I actually came across it by chance in a blog the other day.

http://digability.blogspot.com/2006/01/dumbfounded-chat-with-chris-seline-ceo.html

peter murray on January 27, 2006 2:16 PM
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Lots of lesser known engines here, all producing very interesting results.

Healthline, mentioned in the article, produces amazing results on a search for ACL.

How so? Well, it knows that ACL is a knee injury, and gives that as a Broaden Search option. And, it knows that it's a disease/condition, so it gives you drill downs for symptoms, treatment, etc. And, it knows it's anatomy, and allows you to see all of the related anatomical objects (that you can also navigate).

But the Healthmap, which provides a detailed visual overview of ACL tear topics, just crushes it.

http://www.healthline.com/search?q1=acl

The good news, regardless of who does what, is that many are offering consumers more than they've had before, and that's a win for all of us.

Who said that on January 27, 2006 2:22 PM
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Nice find on Dumbfind. Just looked at it, and you're right that it has a good tag system. Haven't had a chance to check it out in detail, but yikes, only five employees! I'm, uh, dumbfounded on how this will play out.

Matt Marshall on January 27, 2006 3:16 PM
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I remember Amazon scraped the Junglee䴜s technology. I have my own doubts, after becoming millionaires and spoiled by the money all these years (about 8 years) they could have still fire and drive in them to come with a revolutionary technology. Especially it is proven that their first product/invention was just an irrational exuberance of dot-com era and found useless by Amazon.

John on January 27, 2006 5:53 PM
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Best of luck guys.

Ed on January 27, 2006 7:08 PM
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makes sense...

jacobino on January 28, 2006 6:06 PM
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I agree with Charlene Li that Kosmix is more a topical search engine while Google is general purpose search.

John Doerr said "the next Google is still going to be Google." This certainly raised alert. I would think Google will aquire Kosmix some day.

Helen Wang on January 30, 2006 2:55 PM
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why not Google acquire Healthline or webMD? I can't see too much differenece between Kosmix, HealthLine and WebMd.

healthline on January 31, 2006 10:45 AM
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Vivisimo is a much solid company than Dumbfind, Kosmix or whatever's similar. Clusty is still years ahead (literally) of all these newbies, not only it's the pioneer, their mission is to make the web a better place, not a place to only make money.

Andrien Zanier on February 2, 2006 1:23 PM
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Heard about Kosmix a while ago. But, wasn't clear (till now :))on what you guys are really doing...

Well, Kosmix sure sounds like something to watch out for..

Hey Venky, Anand & team - Best Luck for Demo!!

rachna on February 5, 2006 2:06 PM
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Interesting, finally search includes intelligence and presentation.

Good Luck!

Ankush on February 5, 2006 5:18 PM
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Hi Venky & Anand,I read about your achievment in our local daily(in Chennai) and successfully found your website.Congrats.I have devised a Romanized script common to all the major Indian languages and have launched the package on the web(Quoted above)I am 81 and had spent more than ten years collecting and correlating information on the phonetic values of the letters of the Indian languages.If you could spare the time could you go through the website? Among other benefits that derive from the package the possibility of a multilingual lexicon is one ., wherein at the click of a mouse the English as well as the other Indian language equivalents of any Indian word can be viewed.This is a huge task which persons like me cannot undertake. I have however given a microscopic specimen of it in my website.Now I offer the concept to you for development. There are millions of Indians both athome as well as abroad who would benefit.Would you care to reply? Thanks. Kasturi

K.Kasturi on February 6, 2006 4:43 AM
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Hello sir, Anand Rajaraman and Venky Harinarayan,I read about your achievment in The Indian Express local daily(in kerala) and i am eagerly waiting for the launch of the site.i was searching for sites which could give me better results than google.At last there is some one to beat google.
sir it would be better if u could add or search of sites for free faster music downloads.

Joby Stephen on February 7, 2006 8:18 PM
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may god help u to grow more faster than google

Ashish Mohan on February 7, 2006 8:25 PM
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hello sir,thanks for your exciting start in the search engine world.surely this time google is the best search engine but here is the indian competetor that will flow them out.i read in times of india that it will be based on contents not on popularity like google.this would surely make KOSMIX more faster.we are eagerly waiting for launching of KOSMIX. best of luck

kundan krishna on February 8, 2006 2:52 AM
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Anything that refines search and provides more accurate results is welcome.

Having said this, I feel research is more personalized and people though use search engines to locate new sites and information, those who are into serious research bookmark them.

That is why I developed LookupThis.com. Being a net researcher myself I found it difficult to keep track of my favorite links, organize them and search it.

So when I want to find something on the web, I need to first check if it is in my bookmarks list and then if not there search the web.

This is what LookupThis.com does and I believe it works well for the 25 users who are presently registered with this FREE service.

A Bonus to using LookupThis.com is that it provides an AD Space Sharing Feature using which users can make money by hosting their affiliate links. The ADs get displayed free of cost on LookupThis Search Result Pages.

Check it out yourself

Gurudatt Shenoy on February 9, 2006 2:48 AM
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Hi,

I went through your website and its quite interesting. I feel that this venture has great potential.

I have a small suggesstion for you guys. May be you might wanna work on your Kosmix Logo. Instead of having a "Star" to dot the ' i ' you might wanna replace that with just a dot but in red (color of vermillon). Similar to the color of "bindi", that is worn on the forehead by Indian Women.

Thanks and Regards,

Bill Hoover

Bill Hoover on February 9, 2006 9:44 AM
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Hey Anand & Venky,

Even before Hindu featured kosmix, we have been tracking about its development. Since it has been a venture from IIT-M Guys.
We need to prove our mettle in comparison to Google's performance.
All the best for your venture.

Thanks and regards,
with wishes,
pals.

itispals on February 14, 2006 11:22 AM
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It's too good to see such search engine compete with the google in the present technology ranges.
I'm very happy to see that the co-founders are from india. I would like to see many those inventions comes from india.

shiva on February 16, 2006 2:16 AM
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Hi sir,


I am krishna chaitanya ,doing my MCA SECOND YEAR IN OSMANIA CAMPUS,HYDERABAD.I feel great that the indians are competing with google and give better results than google.Ofcourse what u said regarding google is exatly correct and i wish our new search engine 'KOSMIX' will retain it.Wishing u all the best.

P.krishna chaitanya on February 18, 2006 2:59 AM
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i am from india iam very proud you are working on kosomix i wish you both succes i want to invest in kosomix before it comes into public as an ipo please advise thanking both shamanthareddy

shamanthareddy on February 27, 2006 7:41 AM
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online sports book betting on June 29, 2006 5:53 PM
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Hey Venki & Anand let me be one among to share success of the work you gusy are doing.

The Veritcal was great idea. Google is good which gives quantity from kosmix that idea of quality is the one which really inspires us.

If you guys can open any blog/Forum so that we can pass on the comments and suggestions on kosmix.

If you guys can include a medical dictonary also as part it would be a lot helpful is just my thought.

Prabhakar

Prabhakar on July 15, 2006 9:52 PM
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