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New Snap site thinks outside the search box

Idealab founder follows success of Overture Services with another search project--one that tries to guess what you really want.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
3 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--Bill Gross wants to turn Web search and advertising on its ear.

The Idealab founder and man behind commercial search giant Overture Services showed off his new Web search venture, Snap, on Tuesday. He boasted that Snap will revolutionize Internet navigation and search-related advertising by helping people find what they're looking for faster "after the search box" and knowing what marketers pay for their business.

"It's going to be controversial, but it's awesome," Gross said in an interview at the Web 2.0 conference on Tuesday. "We're trying to improve search productivity."

The site, which went public with a beta version on Tuesday, is Gross' latest foray into Web search after his wild success with Overture, which Yahoo bought last year for $1.63 billion. Idealab has also funded desktop search company X-1 and Insiderpages.com, a local search and social networking start-up.

What's different about Snap.com is the tools it uses to help people refine search once they have typed a query into the search box.

By licensing technology from X-1, Snap can narrow down the list of search results by typing in the first letter of a word, or a domain such as ".com" or ".uk." Using data feeds from a collective of Internet service providers, it can also sort results by a site's "satisfaction rating," which is based on collective Web surfers' use of that site after they've performed the same search. Or it can display the popularity of a Web site in metrics.

It's also one of the first search engines to harness data on "user intentions," extrapolating meaning from words typed into a search box. It's done so by licensing data feeds from third-party Internet service providers, which have tracked, anonymously, what people do after they've typed in a specific search terms. It uses this special sauce, a data feed of more than a terabyte, to compute the relevancy of certain searches and resort results.

The site also uses data on the routes people take after they leave the search engine, which helps reorder future results by relevancy, Gross said.

"We can infer what people have done (in the past with the same search) and then change the actual layout of the page and sort order," said Tom McGovern, CEO of Perfect Market Technologies, which owns the product Snap.

Finally, the most "subversive" part, Gross said, is that the service is transparent to advertisers and visitors. Snap will make money by selling advertising placements at the top of search results, but the twist is that it will let marketers pay specifically for people who buy at their site as a result of the Snap listing, a "cost per transaction" model. Furthermore, advertisers can specify, for example, that they want to pay 25 percent of their product cost or $4 for every widget they sell if a consumer buys it from the ad at Snap--and that information will be displayed in Snap's product listings. In comes the transparency.

Advertisers will also be able to see what their rivals are paying for listings--unlike the current system offered by Google and Overture Services. People will even be able to see in charts and graphs what Snap is making from online advertising.

"We're making a Nasdaq for advertisers," Gross said. "This is the ultimate alignment between consumers and advertisers."

The search engine itself is powered with data from Gigablast and LookSmart. It is also using anonymous data feeds from ISPs.

The privately held Pasadena, Calif., company has been in development for the last year. Perfect Market purchased the rights to the domain name Snap.com from General Electric earlier this year. The former Snap.com, previously the name of a joint venture between CNET and NBC, went out of business in 2001, after the dot-com bust.