Houston entrepreneurs seek a sharper search engine
They say their system of letting users rank sites is superior
Four Houston entrepreneurs are launching a search engine today that they hope will challenge the likes of Google and Yahoo.
Frustrated with the results they get from other search engines, Neal Verma, founder and CEO of iRazoo.com, and three friends with technology backgrounds have spent their evenings and weekends — and an undisclosed amount of money — over the last eight months developing iRazoo.
Now they’ll have to prove it works by drawing enough users, who in turn will attract advertisers to fund the company in a business where a handful of companies dominate.
They’re betting they have a better approach to search — a site designed to highlight the most useful sites by seeking input from users who can earn rewards by voting for, or against, Web sites.
Even though 97 percent of Internet searches are done on Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask and Time Warner, according to comScore, there are hundreds of smaller search engines.
Newcomers keep trying because there is a lot of money to be made, said James Lamberti, senior vice president for comScore, which measures Web usage and ranks search engines by use.
In the U.S. alone, companies are spending $17 billion a year in online advertising, and 40 percent of that is spent on search engine sites, he said.
“There’s still a ton of activity in this field,” he said. “A lot of people think they can build a better mousetrap.”
But it’s very difficult to catch on. Hundreds of companies like iRazoo have started search engines. Not since Google emerged five years ago has a search engine really gotten traction, Lamberti said.
Those dominant search engines are always in a buying mood as they try to find niches that will catch on with users, he said.
In the technology world where paradigms can change faster than Google can find 63.5 million hits for “monkey,” Verma pointed to that top competitor as evidence iRazoo can succeed.
Google may dominate now, but it, too, had humble beginnings, he said.
Last year, google — with a small “g” — knew it had arrived when it became an official dictionary entry. Members of the iRazoo team can dream of the day when their search engine makes the dictionary, but they could live with one of their targets taking notice and paying them a few million bucks for iRazoo.com.
“Either way is fine with us,” Verma said.
For now they need to prove their site’s features will appeal to users and return better search results.
• Users can recommend sites that come up in their searches. If a link had useful information, a user can vote to recommend it to others. If not, the user can vote against it. Sites that get good recommendations will show up at the top of future searches. Sites that get more “no” votes than “yes” votes eventually will be dropped.
• Users earn points every time they vote. When they earn enough points, they can redeem points for digital cameras, iPods and other gadgets. Each recommendation earns 2 points, and an iPod Shuffle costs 58,000 points.
• When users search for a term, iRazoo puts a thumbnail screen shot of the site next to the search result, allowing users to preview the page before linking to it.
To prevent users from manipulating the system — sometimes known as “Google-bombing” as in the recent example that got Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert listed as the top result when searching for “greatest living American” — iRazoo requires users to log in, and they can only recommend a particular site once, Verma said.
The iRazoo site also tracks users by the unique address on their computers, and one user can only vote for a site once per computer, Verma said.
“You’d have to have a lot of time on your hands to get around it,” he said.
Doubts if it’s enough
If there’s anything the Internet has shown, it’s that a lot of people have too much time on their hands. Todd Mintz, a Portland, Ore.-based Internet consultant, suspects iRazoo’s checks and balances won’t be enough to prevent efforts to move sites into the top spots mostly likely to be seen by users.
“There are very smart people out there who will figure out how to game it,” he said.
Depending on recommendations can be risky because the site can’t account for how smart users are, said Scott Hendison, another Portland Internet consultant specializing in search engine marketing and optimization — the practice of getting one group’s site to come up higher in search results than another.
Moving up the list
Search engines rely on algorithms — mathematical formulas — to find the best search results. Basically, the engine looks for keywords on sites across the Web.
As Internet marketing has evolved, people such as Hendison have figured out ways to get their clients’ sites listed higher in search results on popular search engines, in turn driving traffic to their sites.
“Commercialization has kind of taken over the algorithm a little bit,” Lamberti said.
Mintz said the algorithms’ recommendations are better than those of strangers.
“The Google or Yahoo algorithm may not be perfect, but I’d trust them more than someone I don’t know,” he said.