Good Things Come in Small Packages,
or, Findory Gets Personal
by Gary Price, Gary Price Research and Internet
Small Web search and software development companies do
good for searchers, but often we know very little about
the people who run them. When Google, Yahoo!, MSN, or
Ask Jeeves announce something new, we all hear about it.
Of course, all of these companies have full-time PR and
media relations departments.
However, those of us who spend a great deal of time
looking at new technologies know that many exciting
ideas and useful products come from small companies
or sole proprietors. Often these small companies offer
services long before the "big guys" catch up, if they
Matt Wells of Gigablast [http://www.gigablast.com] is
an example. His general Web search engine continues
to take major steps toward becoming a major player
on the Web search scene.
The same goes for Rick Skrenta and his small team, who build Topix.net [http://www.topix.net],
one of the most useful browse/news search tools that I've seen in a long
time. It's easy to use, offers syndicated feeds, and contains news sources
not found in other databases.
Personalization on the Web (results based on user
needs and interests) gets plenty of attention these
days. We've seen personalization of results projects
from Google Labs, a personalized news tool from Microsoft
called Newsbot, and many others, including Amazon.com's
personalization of book pages with other information
you might find useful.
One company, Findory, already offers an online personalized
news service. This Seattle-based company is led by
Greg Linden. Before starting this company, Linden worked
at Amazon.com in the personalization division.
Recently I had a chance to conduct an e-mail interview
with Findory's Greg Linden.
Greg, what is Findory News?
Findory News [http://findory.com] is a personalized
news site. It learns your interests from the articles
you read, searches thousands of news sources, and helps
you find the essential news of the day.
Why would someone use Findory News?
Findory helps you find what you want faster and more
reliably. All you have to do is read news. Findory
learns what you like and the front page rearranges
itself to match your interests. By searching thousands
of sources for news that interests you, Findory News
helps you find articles you might otherwise miss, while
still providing broad coverage of recent major news.
Personalization seems like a hot topic these days.
How do you define it?
I define Web personalization as delivering different
and unique content to each individual customer based
on the customer's interests. It's your own version
of the Web site, a site just for you.
To distinguish personalization and customization,
I would argue that personalization uses implicit interests
and customization uses explicit interests. Personalization
learns what you like from your actions; you are what
you click on and what you buy. Customization requires
you to explicitly specify what you want; you are what
you say you are. My Yahoo! is an example of customization.
You tell the site what you want. Amazon.com is an example
of personalization. The site learns your interests
In a world with a glut of information, personalization
offers a way to find focus. It doesn't waste your time
showing you what everyone else sees. It learns what
you like, shows you what you want to see, and filters
out the rest. That's personalization.
Tell us about your background and why you developed
Findory. Where did the idea come from? How long did
it take from idea to launch?
I started at Amazon in early 1997, helping build
what was a small online bookstore into a shopping site
for books, music, video, kitchen, computer games, electronics,
hardware, and just about everything else you can imagine.
Amazon is well-known for having the best online personalization
systems on the Web; the site learns your interests
and helps you find what you want from Amazon's massive
catalog. It's a store for every customer, as Jeff Bezos
likes to say. I was fortunate enough to be building
Amazon's personalization system from the beginning,
from writing the first recommendation engine used by
Amazon.com to later leading the software team that
built all Amazon's personalization systems. Before
Amazon, I was in the graduate computer science program
at the University of Washington studying artificial
intelligence. Just before starting Findory.com, I was
at Stanford University in the Sloan Program at the
Graduate School of Business.
Findory.com started in mid-2003 developing personalized
search technology. The early prototypes we developed
analyzed user search and click behavior and modified
Google search results based on the user's history.
The technology was particularly promising when someone
was repeatedly refining their search adding,
deleting, or changing terms trying in vain to
find what they want. Unfortunately, we required large
amounts of data on user search behavior. As a startup,
Findory.com didn't have this data, nor were we able
to acquire the data or find a partner who would allow
us access to the data.
At this point, late 2003, we began experimenting
with personalized news. Personalized news is not a
new idea. People have been working on it for many years.
But it is quite challenging to do well. News is perishable old
news is no news and the rapid expiration of
the data thwarts many algorithms that could be applied
to the task. Previous attempts have mostly either been
keyword-based, essentially finding articles with the
same keywords in them, or category-based, simply finding
articles in the same broad subject category. Both methods
produce mediocre results, showing articles that are
too specific or too general, not at all compelling.
However, we found a variation of the techniques we
had developed for personalized search produced high
quality results for personalized news. Following the
start-up maxim of "launch early and often," Findory
News was launched as a beta in January 2004. After
several iterations on the algorithms and design, Findory
News came out of beta in March 2004.
Aside from building the technology, what else
goes into launching a search company? Is it hard
getting attention in a time when the big guys seem
to get a bulk of the ink?
Start-ups have some advantages over established firms.
They're nimble, creative, tolerant of risk, and have
no legacy systems to maintain or older products to
cannibalize. But they have many disadvantages as well.
They're short of resources, have an unknown brand and
product, no existing user base, and have difficulty
I've found PR and marketing to be [among] the bigger
challenges for Findory.com. Given that Findory is seed-funded,
we don't have a marketing budget that can support large
advertising campaigns. While Findory is doing some
focused, targeted advertising, we rely on word of mouth
and positive press to increase awareness of Findory
News. Much of the PR work is the normal routine of
contacting and talking with reporters, but Findory
has also sought to take advantage of the increasing
popularity of alternative press, especially popular
Weblogs. Weblogs do have an interesting network effect,
where an article in one Weblog may spur a conversation
that spreads across the Web, discussions held over
many days on different Weblogs.
Can you tell us a bit about the technology that
Findory uses? Was it developed in-house? What does
Findory look at to help it personalize results? Do
you do all of the coding yourself?
Findory's technology was developed in-house. It primarily
uses statistical analysis of user behavior supplemented
with analysis of article content. Findory has filed
for two patents on the technology.
How is Findory funded?
Findory is seed-funded by the founder. At our projected
burn rate, the funding is sufficient into 2005.
Can you tell us about your relationship with Topix?
I've been in contact with Rich Skrenta for several
months. Topix.net and Findory.com have a cooperative
relationship. While we are trying to solve similar
problems both trying to provide focus into the
overwhelming amount of news on the Web we have
very different solutions. Topix.net is using fine-grained
subject categorization that provides readers a way
of reading articles on very specific topics. Findory
News takes a different approach: Just read articles.
We'll learn about your interests and help you find
other articles that interest you. The approaches are
complementary, so we have no reason not to cooperate
with each other.
Topix.net has been kind enough to allow us to use
some of their news articles. Although Topix.net data
represents only a small fraction of the news in our
database, the breadth of the Topix.net news crawl does
improve the quality of Findory News. In exchange for
the use of their data, we credit Topix.net on Findory
News and drive traffic to their site.
Does Findory also crawl Web news sources? How
many sources does Findory contain in its database?
Do you have any plans to increase this number?
Findory does do its own Web crawl. We currently have
over 2,000 sources in our news database. We're always
seeking to expand our news coverage.
Where do you see the company in 5 years? What
services will Findory be offering that are not available
today? Any plans to add any fee-based services?
Google's first product was in Web search, and later
they launched Google News. Findory.com's first product
is Findory News, but later we will launch personalized
Web search. As Findory News grows, we will have the
traffic to be able to launch our personalized search
engine. Using the same strategy as A9 [Amazon's Google-fed
search engine] and Vivísimo of building on top
of existing search engines, Findory's personalized
search doesn't require building a massive search infrastructure,
just sufficient traffic to drive the algorithms and
Findory's personalization technology provides focus
anywhere there is a glut of information. In 5 years,
Findory will be the personalized portal, providing
personalized searches over Web pages, news, products,
and anything else you want to find on the Web.
Findory does plan to add targeted advertising, but
[has] no plans for any fee-based services. Our targeted
advertising will be text-only similar to Google AdWords,
but use the full history of user interaction with Findory
rather than just the current search keywords. The advertising
will be unobtrusive, relevant, and useful.
Have you had a chance to take a look at what MS
is doing with their Newsbot tool? How is Findory
The beta version of the U.K. version of MSN Newsbot
has gone through several iterations. At first, MSN
Newsbot required users to sign in using MSN Passport
and had a lengthy delay before the page became personalized.
More recently, MSN Newsbot has moved closer to Findory
News, offering immediate personalization without sign
differences remain. The quality of the personalization
on Findory News seems to be substantially higher; as
I said before, it's tricky to get personalized news
right. Second, the entire Findory News site is personalized.
MSN Newsbot seems to limit its personalized content
to a few articles in the upper right corner of the
I'm pleased that MSN has chosen to develop a personalized
news site. It validates the idea of personalized news
and attracts attention to Findory News.
Google Labs launched a personalization tool recently.
What do you think of it? How about what Udi Manber
and his team are doing at A9?
I'd say that Google's search personalization is more
personalization. It's a profile-based technique,
requiring users to fill out a lengthy form about their
interests before they can get started. Google seems
to prefer this type of approach because, as Craig Silverstein
(Director of Technology at Google) recently said in
a ZDNet interview, "the computer only has to be intelligent
[enough] to use that information to try to help you
out" rather than also trying to be intelligent enough
to learn your interests. I have a huge amount of respect
for Craig, but I think he's missing some key points
here. When you rely on people to tell you what their
interests are, they 1) almost always won't bother;
2) if they do bother, they often provide partial information
or even lie; and 3) even if they bother, tell the truth,
and provide complete information, they usually fail
to update their information over time. But, requiring
an explicit profile isn't the only reason why Google's
personalized search doesn't work well. It's also targeting
the wrong problem. When people search, they're on a
mission. They're looking for something. If you want
to help me in my search for, say, a "leather sofa," it
isn't enough to apply a broad profile that says that
I tend to be interested in furniture. You need to pay
attention to what I'm doing right now and use that
A9 doesn't do much yet other than track your search
history. But that is the first step in personalized
search. And I think it's pretty clear that A9 intends
to pursue personalized search. Udi Manber has made
several statements about it, such as in his recent
InternetNews interview, where he recognized that "relevancy
is different from user to user."
Personalized search is inevitable. With only one
general relevance rank, it is increasingly difficult
to improve search quality because not everyone agrees
on how relevant a particular page is to a particular
search. At some point, to get further improvements,
relevance rank will have to be customized to each person's
definition of relevance. When that happens, you have
You recently launched an e-mail and RSS service.
How is that going? Do people still find e-mail alerting
tools useful? Do you think syndication is going to
be as big as many believe it will be?
Your Daily Findory News, the Findory News e-mail
service, and Findory News RSS feeds are currently in
beta. Both are doing quite well. The daily e-mail is
like getting a front page made just for you delivered
on your doorstop every morning. Our readers seem to
like the feature, and it encourages people to come
back to Findory News every day.
Findory News RSS feeds provide an alternate channel
to get to Findory News. To my knowledge, Findory News
is the only site offering personalized RSS feeds, feeds
that differ from user to user based on their interests.
Not only does it allow readers to see their personalized
Findory News in their favorite news reader, but also
it allows bloggers to feature their personalized news the
news they see on Findory News on their Weblog
for all their readers to see and enjoy. It's a great
Syndication is interesting. It makes news even easier
to access than it already is. But news already is pretty
easy to access on the Web. The real problem is focus.
The question is no longer, "How do I get information?" The
question is, "What information do [I] need to know?" Power
users of RSS probably have encountered this problem
already. When you have 510 RSS feeds in your
RSS reader, it's great. When you have 100, it's not.
You have long, unaggregated, unprioritized lists of
news to wade through every day. Unlike RSS readers,
Findory News provides focus. Rather than organize your
news by source and listing by date, Findory News aggregates
and prioritizes all of your news by your interests.
Is Web search a zero-sum game? Can niche tools
survive as the big guys offer more and more services?
The Web search market is growing rapidly and people's
thirst for information and knowledge seems unbounded,
so I don't see how Web search could be seen as zero-sum.
This isn't even close to a mature market.
Niche tools will thrive, since specialized tools
and databases can often beat the performance of generalized
tools and databases for at least some class of searches.
If tomorrow you were given the capital and a pool
of great developers to build the perfect search tool(s)
... Would you decide to go after Google and Yahoo!
or build niche search tools? As an observer of the
industry, what could the "big guys" do better?
I think the biggest opportunity lies in personalized
search. At some point, a generic relevance rank just
can't get any better. It's as relevant you as can make
it to the average user. When you recognize that different
people have different perceptions of what is most relevant
to them, then you have a huge opportunity to improve
search. This is both where the big guys MSN,
Yahoo, and Google could do better and [is an]
opportunity for Findory.com.
Findory doesn't require registration. From a business
angle why did you make the decision not to learn
more about your users? Have users expressed concerns
about privacy? Would knowing more about a user aside
from what they read help improve the personalization?
Findory News doesn't require registration because
it doesn't have to. I want readers to have to do nothing
other than read news. That's it. The site helps them
find other news of interest, but doesn't get in their
way. It's easy, simple, and useful.
No one has expressed concerns about privacy, but
that's probably because Findory News knows nothing
about you personally. It doesn't know your name, your
address, your credit card, or anything else. Readers
are linked to a random, anonymous number, but the system
doesn't know that any particular number is actually
Greg Linden or Gary Price.
Knowing more might help a little, but not as much
as you might think. Findory's personalization technology
is optimized to work well even from small amounts of
data. It can make a rough guess at your interests after
you've read just a few articles. More data allows it
to refine its guess, smoothing out the edges, but the
guess was probably fairly close already, so the improvement
Does Findory have any
plans to license its personalization technology?
We've talked to a few firms about licensing the technology,
but we're focused on developing our core product, Findory
News, and have been resistant to deals that might distract
us from that mission.
Thanks for your time and good luck with Findory.
Editor's Note: Since we did the interview Linden
launched another site, Blogory [http://blogory.com].
This offers the same type of personalized content
that you'll find at Findory. The difference is that
Blogory provides personalized content from Weblogs.
Also, MSN Search launched its MSN Newsbot in the
Greg shares a few comments about this Microsoft project
on his Weblog [http://glinden.blogspot.com/2004/07/msn-newsbot-review.html].