Goby—Exploring the Web’s Depths So You Can Explore the World

9/23/09Follow @wroush

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showing ads, letting other travel sites embed the Goby search engine in their sites for a licensing fee, and offering users travel deals tailored to their searches (and earning commissions from partners like Priceline in the process).

In its launch form, Goby does have limitations. It doesn’t display search results quite as quickly as I’ve come to expect from Google and other search engines—probably because the engine has to spend a lot of time pulling in disparate types of data and formatting them neatly. Also, the service only understands about 200 activity categories, and it only has information for the United States. So if you’re into unusual activities in faraway places—say, bungee jumping in Peru—you’re out of luck.

And the travel-related search market is one with lots of competitors. For Web users who have a specific travel-related goal in mind, like reserving a hotel room or buying a plane ticket, it’s hard to imagine why they’d stop by Goby rather than going straight to one of the familiar sites like TripAdvisor or Kayak (to name just two New England-based examples). Microsoft’s fancy new Bing search engine has an entire section devoted to travel—and it provides lots of contextual information, anticipating Goby’s idea in several ways.

Goby HomepageBut Goby’s investors apparently think Watkins and the other founders are up to the challenge of selling their service to users and partners. “The short answer as to why we like Goby is that we really like the people,” says Jo Tango, the founding partner at Kepha Partners. “First, this is my fourth project with Mike [Stonebraker]. I’ve worked with him previously on Streambase, Vertica, and Morpheus [a seed project that Kepha decided to end]. He’s a big thinker who challenges the status quo. Second, we helped recruit Vince Russo, who is a deep Web expert whom I’ve known for a long time. Last, as Goby started in Kepha’s offices, I’ve also gotten to know Mark Watkins, who is a great leader.”

The biggest advantage I can see to using Goby, having played around with it for a few days, is that it organizes information from so many disparate sources into a consistent format. For every concept Goby “understands”—say, hiking trails—the engine has penetrated the source information deeply enough to know not just that a particular Web page is about a particular trail, but also where the trail is located, how long it is, how steep it is, and the like. That means you can quickly sort through your options all in one place, rather than having to bounce back and forth between multiple websites, each of which may offer just a fragment of the information you need. The engine also captures and cross-references related data around the Web, such as photos—so you can see where you’re going before you go.

And if Goby doesn’t understand your query—meaning, basically, that the company hasn’t gotten around to curating a category for the specific activity that interests you—there’s still a delightful little consolation prize. A picture of a fortune cookie pops up on the screen, and if you click on it, a fortune pops out.

The fortune that was showing yesterday, alas, was a bit moralistic. “If you continually give, you will continually have,” it intoned. Maybe the Goby software had itself in mind.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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