David vs. Goliath… vs. Goliath: Blinkx and the Future of Search

First published Sept 14, 2004 in the Search Insider

While the elephants dance, there’s sometimes an opportunity for a mouse to change the world. And that may be just what’s happening in the world of search. In the aftermath of Google’s IPO and the continuous stream of search speculation from Microsoft, a small technology start up named Blinkx may have just changed the way we search.

With over a million downloads in under two months, Blinkx has been a hot topic on the download forums and blogs. Ironically, the big draw for Blinkx has more to do with finding the right piece of information on your desktop than with making the Web easier to search. No matter, the same technology powers both types of searches and introduces a paradigm shift for the entire industry. Almost all of Blinkx’s functionality sounds very similar to projects currently underway in Microsoft’s research labs. The difference is, Blinkx is out there and working right now, not two years from now.

I had a chance to chat with Suranga Chandratillake, one of the co founders of Blinkx and the CTO. It was fascinating.

Concepts rather than Words Blinkx takes the idea of search a step farther than the keyword bound interface used by Google and every other engine. Rather than asking the user to interpret what they’re looking for into a string of keywords and then launch a query, Blinkx examines the context of their current activity and tries to distill the desired concept from it.

For example, if you’re on a Web site about collecting 1970 Volkswagen Beetles, Blinkx will use all the relevant content on that page to create the key concept of what you might be looking for. It will then suggest matching sites based on the entire concept, rather than just two or three words. Chandratillake points out that this gives a much more accurate match, because you’re using the entire text of a page. If you want to restrict the text used to provide the match, just highlight the desired content and Blinkx will refine the query.

Search Suggestions in any Application The content used to create the concept doesn’t have to be a webpage. It could be an e-mail, a text document or even a spreadsheet. Once Blinkx is installed, it will take a screen shot of whatever you’re working on and quietly suggest both local files and web sites that seem to match the key concept of your file. The Blinkx tool bar loads icons on the top right of the toolbar and when it finds a match, the appropriate tab changes color. Blinkx has tabs for 7 different channels, including News, Products (shopping), Web, E-mails, Video Clips, Blogs and Local Files. The suggested links appear in a window when you roll over the tab.

Now Serving Suggestions Daily One of the interesting results that Blinkx found with the original users is a dramatic increase in the number of links chosen in a day. Traditionally, most users may turn to a search engine 5 to 10 times a day. This means most users might see 50 to 100 links. But when Blinkx is always there, suggesting relevant links, the number of links seen by the user rises dramatically. The average Blinkx user generally sees 200 to 250 links a day. As Chandratillake is quick to point out, this opens up some real potential in the area of search marketing. “When search is ubiquitous, users will look at it more. They don’t have to stop what they’re doing, go to the Web and search. We’re always there, making suggestions.”

Do the Elephants Care? Chandratillake is the first to admit Blinkx isn’t perfect. “There are still a lot of bits to figure out. The biggest hurdle for us right now is the size of our index, but that’s improving every day.” Small interface and usability issues aside, the question is how will Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft respond? This is potentially the biggest innovation in search in the past eight years. And the fact that it came from a small start-up rather than a major player indicates that the frontier of search is still alive and well. Copernic reportedly has a similar search appliance coming out soon.

Blinkx will have to find its place, and search users will have to understand this paradigm shift. But I’m betting those two things are inevitable. As Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft continue their dance, they’ll have to pay attention to this mouse, because it’s changing the tune of the entire search industry

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