Google buys Metaweb and its sprawling database

Metaweb maintains a vast database that records properties and relationships for all sorts of entities--and now Google bought the start-up.

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Stephen Shankland
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Metaweb maintains a large database of entities and keeps track of their relationships.
Metaweb maintains a large database of entities and keeps track of their relationships. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google on Friday announced that it acquired Metaweb, a company founded in 2005 that has assembled a database of all sorts of things in the world, their properties, and their relationships.

Metaweb has some affinities with Google--facing the challenge that, for example, people can use dozens of different terms to describe the same entity or that the same name can refer to different entities. Metaweb's database, open to contributions by others through a mechanism called Freebase, keeps track of the properties of 12 million such entities.

Google can handle a lot of search queries, but Metaweb's information will enable it to handle more, Jack Menzel, a Google director of product management, said in a blog post.

"With efforts like rich snippets and the search answers feature, we're just beginning to apply our understanding of the Web to make search better," he said, but some searches remain out of Google's reach. "What about 'colleges on the West Coast with tuition under $30,000' or 'actors over 40 who have won at least one Oscar'? These are hard questions, and we've acquired Metaweb because we believe working together, we'll be able to provide better answers."

The move is notable because Google's mission--to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible--typically applies its own algorithms to sort others' data. The genius of that approach is that Google doesn't have to worry about creating the information, only about processing it.

Metaweb, like Google's Knol effort, marks something of a departure by giving Google some of the information directly. But while Metaweb got its database with "a large number of high-quality open-data sources," according to the company's FAQ, many volunteers contribute to its development, so it's not just in-house data curation.

"Google and Metaweb plan to maintain Freebase as a free and open database for the world," Menzel said. "We plan to contribute to and further develop Freebase, and would be delighted if other Web companies use and contribute to the data. We believe that by improving Freebase, it will be a tremendous resource to make the Web richer for everyone."

Chief Technology Officer John Giannandrea and Robert Cook, SVP of platform partnerships, formally co-founded Metaweb in July 2005. However, its roots go back further, to a 2000 "knowledge Web" idea by Danny Hillis, who founded supercomputer maker Thinking Machines and, later, research-and-development specialist Applied Minds. It was at the latter where the Metaweb project began in 2003, with Cook leading development, according to the Freebase history page.

Investors included Benchmark Capital, Goldman Sachs Capital Partners, DAG Ventures, Millennium Technology Ventures, and the Omidyar Network. Terms of Google's acquisition weren't disclosed.

Updated 2:35 a.m. July 19 to note acquisition terms weren't disclosed.