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Octopus bets greater customization will draw traffic

The start-up hopes to go portals one better, serving up chosen bits of information rather than whole, prefabricated pages and offering drag-and-drop features to design page layouts.

Web surfing could be headed for a wipeout, if Internet start-up Octopus.com has its way.

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company tomorrow plans to preview a new data retrieval service that it hopes will radically change the way Web users gather and view information, while propelling the company into competition with portal sites offering personalization features, such as Yahoo's My Yahoo service.

According to Octopus CEO Steve Douty, one of the biggest problems facing Internet users is the inability to find the information they want quickly and easily. Octopus provides a novel solution to inefficient navigation, he says, by giving users a way to build queries that serve up particular bits of information, rather than directing users to whole, prefabricated pages.

Throw in the ability to save, share and edit these templates, called "views," and users suddenly have a powerful tool for calling up the information they want without wading through irrelevant search results or hunting for information buried on a Web page, Douty said.

Extending the scope of Web page customization could prove troublesome for the portals, analysts said. To date, giants like Yahoo have often broadened their variety of content--adding stock quotes and news headlines, for example--rather than offering greater ability to tailor the user interface.

Octopus will begin offering its service with content through various partnerships in three categories: business information, news and personal finance. The site will preview with content from Quicken and Hoover's and is negotiating with several possible content providers. It plans to expand into other categories, such as sports, down the road.

The service will be free for the near term and carry no advertising, according to Douty, a former marketing executive at Microsoft's free MSN Hotmail service. The company, which received first-round venture financing of $11.4 million late last year from Redpoint Ventures, plans to make money by charging content providers for premium placement and charging for the traffic it drives.

Douty is quick to differentiate his company from the numerous start-ups that have come forward offering variations on traditional search engines such as bookmark organizers Hotlinks and Backflip or companies like GuruNet and Flyswat, whose services bypass the Web altogether.

"We are not competing with search engines; we are competing with the Web experience as a whole," Douty said in an interview.

Danny Sullivan, editor of Internet trade publication SearchEngineWatch.com, agreed.

"I wouldn't look at (Octopus) and say, 'Wow, this could solve search,'" he said.

Rather, he said, Octopus' customization features put it more squarely in competition with companies such as Yahoo, Excite@Home, Lycos and even America Online.

"This looks valuable for all the things people are going to portals for?only it looks a lot easier to manage," he said. "If one of the portals were smart, they would come along and buy it."

The key to the service is customization.

Yahoo and other portals offer personalization features such as Web-based email, calendars and the ability to track stock portfolios and set categories for the news headlines they receive.

Octopus goes one better, giving users a menu of data points to select from and a drag-and-drop feature to place them on a page for viewing. For example, a user could build a page tracking Internet stock prices, including historical financial data, company phone numbers, addresses and so on, by selecting from the menu of choices. The template is updated with real-time data and can be saved for future viewing or as the basis for other customized templates for use by other users.

Octopus also incorporates traditional search functions, allowing users to list results from multiple search engines for simultaneous viewing.

Whatever promise the company might have, however, Octopus will no doubt face serious hurdles in breaking the entrenched habits of Net users and gaining on market leaders such as Yahoo and AOL, which have millions of regular users.

In addition, it's not clear that many users will want the added chore of mapping and building their own data sheets.

"It's a hard thing to do," Sullivan said. "It's such a different metaphor, they could have trouble with adoption."

But Octopus' Douty said he believes the company's patent-pending technology offers a chance to really shake up the status quo.

"I don't believe we've gentrified around portals," he said. "We're ready for another shift."