I got a chance to sit down with the founders of the people search engine, Spock, in advance of the company's grand unveiling, which will be during the LaunchPad sessions at the Web 2.0 Expo. Spock is Yet Another Search Engine, but it's an important one--it searches for people. You type in a name and it will show you everything it knows about that person and where it found the data. Or, if you search on a term, it will find people that match it. For example, search for "boxer," and Mohammad Ali shows up, not underpants or dogs.
It's a very useful idea, and the Spock team has gone further than just building a raw search engine. Each person gets his or her own page, and the system tags people. John Edwards is tagged U.S. Senate, among other things. Users can easily "rotate" on those tags, to see who else fits into that category--just like we do in Flickr, for example.
Users can also tag people manually, and vote on which tags are accurate and which are not. Likewise, if there are multiple photographs of a person attached to a record, users can vote on which one is best. (Finding videos for people records is on the road map, but won't be included at launch.) Spock's founders hope that using human input on top of computer-generated results will make for a quality search database.
It's too early to say, though, how good the results will be. The founders I met with, Jaideep Singh and Jay Bharti, said they'll have 100 million people in their database by launch. That's a lot, but there are 6 billion people on the planet, so it won't be the global White Pages for a while. Also, in our demo, the results were inconsistent. The founders attributed this to a server hiccup; and later in the demo results were much better.
Other interesting features: In Spock, users will be able to "claim" their own names, much like homeowners can claim their houses on Zillow. Authorization will be by proving you have access to one of your personal data sources, like a MySpace or LinkedIn page. Once you've claimed your name you can have ultimate authority over aspects of it, such as which picture displays, and you can add in your own data (like contact info) and decide who gets to see it. At some point, feature creep could make Spock into a de facto social network, although the founders adamantly claim that's not in their plan: they get data from the social networks, they say, they don't want to compete with them. But if Spock is successful, why wouldn't you start to use it to keep track of your friends, or post personal information, or try to find jobs through it?
We also foresee issues surrounding Spock identify theft. The founders say they're still working on some antispam and antigaming systems in the engine.
One of the coolest features we talked about (but did not see) is the system's capability to import your personal contact list--from Outlook or from your private contact list on a site like LinkedIn--and then perform searches against that list. The example we got: say you want to find which of your 2,000 Outlook contacts are golfers in San Francisco. Spock will be able to merge your list of names with its search results to tell you that. Pretty neat, if it works.
Spock will be compared to another people search tool, Wink. Wink is live, and Spock's just a demo, so you can't make a final comparison. But based on what we've seen, Spock's feature set does look much richer, and it also appears that Spock will do a better job of merging data from multiple sources into coherent records for individuals.
People are eagerly awaiting Spock's launch, so they can Spock themselves, their friends, and their ex-lovers (you know that's what you'll do first, too). We're going to have to wait, though. The site won't open up until sometime after the private beta begins, on April 16.