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Grokking Furl: Storage, Search, and the PersonalWeb

By - April 19, 2004

furlToday I finally got to talk with Mike Giles, the fellow behind Furl. He’s based near Amherst, Mass, but used to work out in California, most recently at Vitria, a businessprocessenterpriseapplicationsoftware (ie, BigBoringButImportant) company. He started there when it had 20 employees, rode it out as it went to 1200 and went public, then bailed (it’s now at about 300 or so). Before Vitria he founded a startup, then, closed it. In other words, he’s one of us – he’s been through the roller coaster, and he’s wiser for it.

Something tells me he’s pretty happy in his current gig. He’s the only full time employee, but works with a small cadre of contractors and friends. He’s got between 5-10K users since announcing the beta in January.

Mike started Furl about a year ago to solve a problem he – and a lot of us – had with bookmarks. Namely, bookmarking is a lame, half-assed, unsearchable, flat, linkrotten approach to recalling that which you’ve seen and care to recall on the web. Now, a lot of folks have made stabs at solving this particular problem, but Mike’s got a lot of very cool features built into his beta, and more on the way.

And from my conversation with him, he’s got one more thing that others might be missing: a clear sense of what Furl could do if it were part of a massively scaled platform like AOL, Yahoo, Google, or MSN. If I’m reading him right, he’s smart enough to realize that what he’s built will probably be a feature set on everyone of those platforms before the end of 2005, and he’s also smart enough to know that by launching Furl, he’s forced all of them to consider him as the person to watch in the space.

So what is it about Furl that made me write that past paragraph? After all, it’s just a web page-saving application. Right? Well, yes and no. Furl does a good job of helping you manage your web browsing. It adds several features that others don’ t have – full text search on your saved pages, for example. But Furl saves the entire web page you’ve “furled”, not just the URL, which prevents link rot, on the one hand, and creates what I’ll call a “PersonalWeb,” on the other.

Now, having your own PersonalWeb is a very cool thing. Every page you care about is now saved forever, and is searchable. How I wish I had Furl while I was researching my book for the past year. This application was inconceivable before the cost of storage and bandwidth began to fall toward zero.

But wait…there’s more. You can share your PersonalWeb with others. And Mike just added a recommendation engine, so you can see links the service thinks will be interesting to you, based on what you’ve already Furl’d. Now, let’s play this out. Imagine Furl on, oh, Yahoo, for example. Or Google. You now have a massively scaled application where millions of people are creating their own personal versions of the web, and then sharing them with each other, driving massively statistically significant recommendations, and…some pretty damn useful metadata that can be fed into search engine algorithms, resulting in…yup, far better search (and…far better SFO (Search Find Obtain) opportunities).

Speaking of SFO, imagine the business model. (Mike has, trust me.) If you have a system that has stored millions of people’s PersonalWebs, webs they have literally voted for by *taking action* and *saving* or even *annotating*, then it’s not such a trick to apply some contextual advertising mojo to the whole lot. After all, Web 2.0 is built on the premise that taking action – voting, in effect – can create scaled value (the best known expression of a scaled “voting system” is Page Rank- a link is a vote.) With Furl, saving a page is a vote. Apply a bit of Gmail-like ad play to the PersonalWeb, add in a bit of A9 SFO juju, and presto, it’s Really Contextual Advertising and a Really Useful Shopping Service to boot. BTW, Amazon groks this, of course, it’s why the A9 Toolbar has so many Furl-like features in it. (I’m not claiming Udi and his team stole from Furl, the ideas are out there for anyone to leverage.)

I have to run to a meeting, or I’d rhapsodize a bit more (personal Database of Intentions, anyone?). Suffice to say, there are probably scores of biz dev folk banging away on Furl build/buy spreadsheets in Seattle, Palo Alto, and Dulles. Bravo Mike. Keep up the good work.

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MSFT's Sandbox

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msft_118x35.gifA sort of consumerized version of MS Research, MSN Sandbox is where they roll out social software and search-related betas for test runs.

(thanks Tara)

Hey, Napster's back, why not Netscape?

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netscapeAOL might have some play left after all. According to this Infoworld piece (hey, didn’t there used to be a NetscapeWorld?), AOL is planning to release a new version of the browser, based on Mozilla, and, to quote the piece:

In addition to a browser suite update, AOL has quietly started beta testing a new product called the Netscape Desktop Navigator that offers access to localized Web content — based on the user’s zip code — through a round user interface that resembles a coaster. The beta version of the Netscape Desktop Navigator is available for download at: http://navigator-stage.netscape.com/.

The content in question will be from AOL and partners. Mozilla is pretty good stuff, especially the browser. I wonder….will this be the start of AOL having a true play in the browsing/search/local ad space?

Google Filing Watch: Many Say April 30 Is Deadline

By - April 18, 2004

IPOLast year Barron’s reported that it appeared that Google would have to file statements with the SEC by April 30th of this year, because it had more than 500 shareholders. SEC rules require that private companies with 500 or more shareholders (including option holders) have to file within 120 days of the year after the 500 mark is reached. The deadline is approaching, and the curtain raising has begun. The Merc has the first one I’ve seen.

Google may not want to undergo the cultural shift that takes place in companies when they have to meet analyst and shareholder expectations every quarter. Google may turn out to be the rare company that willingly files public financial reports but doesn’t publicly trade its stock.

Levi Strauss is one company that does this. Its stock is privately held — mostly by descendants of the Strauss family — but the company files quarterly reports with the SEC.

Another option is for Google to dodge the public reporting requirement. In 2001, the SEC detailed how companies can do so: by disclosing their financial information only to shareholders

If Google chooses this latter option, it will be interesting to see how long it takes for an employee to leak his or her statements. I’d wager about a day.

Search Engine Loyalty, A9 Prognostications…

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Mediapost reports fresh search engine loyalty numbers, concluding that “Google gets the gold again” – 65 percent of Google users use only Google, as opposed to just 55 percent of Yahoo users. I’m not sure I buy the whole search engine loyalty thing. I think folks aren’t loyal, they’re lazy. As Yoda might say, not until a compelling choice they have, switch will they.

Which brings me to A9. Over at his blog, Rex points out I missed the most compelling potential A9 feature, that of collaborative filtering.

To me, A9 is not designed as an Internet search engine, but as a knowledge-searching tool to end all knowledge searching tools…..As you look for information, Amazon will provide you the results that “people like you” have found most helpful when searching for the same information, product, place, answer, etc

He’s right, of course, and I should have made a bigger point of this, but I sort of presumed that was the sex in A9 to begin with – it’s Amazon, after all. A knowledge-searching tool is exactly what a search engine should evolve towards. But I disagree with this:

I don’t think Amazon wants to compete with Google. Google admitted recently that it was a content business. Amazon has no such designs. Amazon, rather, wants to connect you with something you can purchase.

While I agree that Amazon wants to connect you to a purchase, I disagree with the implication that Google does not. The advertising business = the marketing business. and the marketing business = the ecommerce business. This loop, somewhat blurry in the physical world, is nearly seamless online. As I said in my posts, it’s two ends (search, commerce) to the middle here. That’s what makes it so interesting. And I am pretty sure that Google spiffed Froogle up and put it on the home page last month for a reason…and that the announcement of GMail, which will offer a compelling user lock-in, was not a coincidence. Rex points out, and I second wholeheartedly:

If A9 incorporates the collaborative filtering algorithms that power Amazon’s predictive recommendations to customers, it will (and I know this from very, very expensive first-hand experience) produce search results that will astound the user. Just think about it: Your search results will be filtered first by Google algorithms and then through Amazon’s collaborative filtering algorithms. In the simplistic metaphor we used at smallbusiness.com, “Your search results will be based on those results found most helpful by people like you. It will be cool. Promise.”

Damn straight. That sounds like one hell of a search engine, and if I were Google, I’d be most attentive.

Super, Man

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supermanjerryIt’s been a while since I’ve beaten one of my favorite dead horses, network television advertising. But this ClickZ story (thanks Pam) had the grist for my mill: I’ve been wondering what the stats look like for the Seinfeld/Superman film, I figured if they were low, we’d hear very little about it (no reason to trumpet it), but if they’re high…

According to the story, which quotes Comscore data, the site is drawing upwards of 30,000 visits a day, which is about what a major blog pulls in. The traffic trend is building, the story notes, and Amex claims it’s had more than a million viewers so far.

These are not huge numbers, by any measure. In fact, I expected them to be far higher. Amex is hyping the site in any number of ways using more traditional marketing. What I wonder is what the numbers are that makes this a success. If traffic keeps building, and as they release the next installment it will, the site will certainly cross 2, 3, and probably 5 million viewers. WIll it be a success then? From a traditional ad buy perspective, most likely the answer is yes. You have 5 million viewers who all *opted into* watching your message. You’d need to buy Superbowl ads to get such a devoted audience. Your message is five minutes long (ten times longer than the 30-second spot) – buying that kind of time on network TV is prohibitive. The branding experience is far better. Etc. etc.

But what I really like about this play is how it points the rest of the moribund mass marketers to the next frontier of advertising. “Hey guys!,” Amex is saying, “come on in! The water’s fine….”