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Upstart aims to ease Web crawling for classifieds

Start-up Vast hopes to make your classified-ad search quicker, whether you are looking for "goths or midgets or prisoners."

If you're in the market for a slightly used Toyota Corolla or want to have dinner with an ex-felon, Vast just might be the search tool for you.

Vast, which launches Tuesday, is a search engine and Web crawler designed to more easily find classified ads, which sometimes can be difficult to locate with larger engines like Google or Yahoo.

The company, which went by the name Omni-Explorer when it was in stealth mode, will initially focus on three areas: autos, personals and jobs. But more topics like housing, motorcycles and pets will be added as the year goes on, said founder Naval Ravikant.

"Think of it as multiple, vertical classified search across the Web," he said. "This is not something you may want to use for mainstream dating. But the good news is that for any kind of niche thing, whether you want to meet goths or midgets or prisoners, this is the place to go."

Like other search start-ups, Vast hopes to capitalize on a perceived need for more specialized searching. The explosion of data in the past 10 years has made it possible to get information on a single topic more quickly than ever before. However, the quantity and disparate locations of information has also made it often difficult to find the exact piece of information you want amid the chaff.

A search for a specific type of used car on Google's main site can turn up results for car dealerships, replacement parts catalogs and news stories, but the ad that interests you could be on page 23 of the results.

The search giants are already trying to better tackle this problem. Google is testing out Google Base, which will perform similar functions, and eBay bought a stake in Craigslist, the site that made online classifieds into a big business.

Vast will try to sneak around the giants by making it easier for individuals to get their ads seen. To get on most want-ad sites, individuals have to submit an ad to the site. With Vast, a car dealership or individual can post the ad to their own site and Vast will come along to include it in its listings. Another start-up, is doing something similar.

"We are building the open version of Google Base. Rather than going to Google and putting in your information, you can leave it where it is. It can be on a car dealership site, on Craigslist, on your blog. You don't have to tag it in any special way," he said. "We come along and index it and structure it so you can compare it to similar items."

The site also includes the usual filtering techniques to narrow searches. In the car search section, a search on Nissan Sentra turns up more than 22,000 results. The results, however, can be winnowed down on by year, location, ZIP code, cost and mileage through filters on the results page. Filtering by price, year, location and cost reduced the results to around 47 items.

Vast's exact business model is still being worked out, but most likely the company will engage in revenue sharing like the other search companies. The search functionality can be added through the "steal this site" link at the bottom of Vast's page.

"This could reinvigorate classified ads," he said. "If you are a local news site running stories on cars, you (can) carry a listing of the local cars in your areas."

If anything, Vast says it will try to leave no want-ad unseen. Vast says it has already crawled 3.5 million jobs and predicts it will have 7 million jobs accessible through its service by the end of the year. Vast says that at launch, it will be one of the top five Web sites in terms of personal ads accumulated--up with ranks of and its ilk.

One of the major projects in the last few months has revolved around weeding out redundant or inappropriate data. Around 90 percent of the data must be eliminated because it is duplicative, Navikant said.

In the personal sections, the engine initially would harvest and include information on wanted lists from police departments. It was also picking up biographies from "Who is a Rat," a site that reveals alleged police informants.

"With the algorithms we have it is often hard to determine what is a personal ad and what is not," he said.

Vast is the latest project for Ravikant, who was one of the founders of Epinions. After that company got sold, he became a venture capitalist. About a year ago, Ravikant again emerged in the news when he joined a lawsuit in which former Epinions employees are suing their venture capitalists, alleging that they persuaded the employees to undervalue their options so Epinions could be sold.

Defendants in the suit include August Capital, which once employed Navikant as entrepreneur in residence.

Vast says its catchy, "" single-word URL wasn't just a lucky find at the Internet registry. The company paid $25,000 for it almost a year ago. "It's kind of a bargain for four-letter-word URLs," he said.

One investor in Vast is Clearstone Venture Partners.