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

9/23/09Follow @wroush

It’s Friday, the weekend is beckoning, and you’ve got your Web browser open. As much as we’d love it if you spent the weekend reading Xconomy, there’s now a less sedentary option, from a Boston startup called Goby. It’s a search engine designed specifically to help you find fun things to do out in the real world—assuming, that is, that you already have some inkling of what kinds of activities you enjoy, where you’d like to do them, and when you have time free.

In fact, the Goby.com website—which goes public today after more than a year in stealth mode—features a row of three search boxes that ask you for exactly that information: What, Where, and When. Once you’ve given Goby those clues, the MIT-bred software behind the site goes to work, using what the company calls “deep Web” technology to scour some 500 data sources, from Yelp to to BedandBreakfast.com. Using the context it’s gleaned, it then organizes the results in a way that’s designed to be easy to explore.

Say you’re thinking about going hiking this weekend north of Boston. Goby will show you nearly 200 options culled from sites like The Trustees of Reservations, mntnLife.com, LocalHikes.com, and Wildernet.com, and arrange them in order of distance from a central point. Buttons within each result let you instantly view additional details like driving directions and photos. Every location is also displayed on an interactive map.

A Goby search for hiking trails north of BostonThere are plenty of links to the original sources—this is a search engine, after all—but the information is compiled so cleverly that you can finish a lot of your research and activity planning without ever leaving Goby. And that’s part of the point.

“Our belief is that today, information and choices on the Web are very fragmented, and people don’t have a good sense for how to browse it,” says Mark Watkins, Goby’s CEO and co-founder. “We thought there was an opportunity to pull that information together in a consistent framework and interface, where people will have a much more robust sense of their choices. We’re kind of halfway between a search engine and a destination site, in that respect. It’s not just about getting people through as quickly as we can. Product design and user experience are very important to us.”

By “us,” Watkins is referring to the small group of experienced, New England-based database researchers and search industry executives who started Goby in the summer of 2008. Watkins himself is the former director of R&D and professional services at Endeca, the Cambridge, MA-based enterprise search provider. Chief technology officer and co-founder Vince Russo, a PhD computer scientist who designed Goby’s core search functionality, is a former chief architect from Reprise Media and Waltham, MA-based Lycos. And the company’s final co-founder, Michael Stonebraker, is a leading database researcher, MIT computer science professor, and serial startup entrepreneur.

Watkins says Chip Hazard, a general partner at Flybridge Capital Partners in Boston, knew about some work Stonebraker and a graduate student, Mujde Pamuk, were doing on new ways to automatically organize information found on the Web. Hazard urged Watkins, who had recently left Endeca, to make contact and see whether the technology could be turned into a startup.

The answer was yes. The fundamental insight Stonebraker and Pamuk had derived, says Watkins, was that “you can learn a lot about a piece of information by the way you find it.”

He explains: “If you go to Expedia and you say ‘I want a plane ticket from Boston to San Francisco for this date and this time and this price,’ you get a list of results. You know that these results are about plane tickets originating in Boston and terminating in San Francisco in a certain price range, but a traditional search engine wouldn’t know that—if Google managed to find that information, it wouldn’t have any idea what it was about. The insight was that rather than just naively crawling a website, you can crawl using a site’s search forms and browsing hierarchy and learn a lot more about the content.”

A Goby result, showing related images culled from Google and FlickrThe buzzword for software that pay attention to contextual data about content is “semantic”—and semantic searches like those Stonebraker and Pamuk were proposing could be applied to any domain. It was Watkins’ idea to see whether it could be used to organize the Web’s welter of travel, entertainment, and recreation-related data.

“My wife is half-Hawaiian, and we go there a few times a year,” Watkins says. “I almost always try to see some music when I travel—for me, that’s a big part of travel, trying to take whatever my personal passions are and doing that. One time, I got home and found out that Jack Johnson [a singer-songwriter raised on Oahu] had been playing just 15 minutes from where we were staying. So I had it in the back of my mind that I would love a service that would let me know about all the things going on my location.”

Watkins wrote a business plan, brought in Russo to build a prototype, and lined up several million dollars in Series A funding from Flybridge and Waltham, MA-based Kepha Partners. (Watkins isn’t saying exactly how much money the 10-employee company has raised.)  The team considered applying Stonebraker’s method to other subject areas, but kept coming back to travel and activity planning—”because it really spoke to us personally, and because, frankly, it’s just a lot of fun,” Watkins says.

It’s also got a lot of business potential. Consumers spend $90 billion a year on travel, and travel-related advertising alone is a $9 billion industry. Goby plans to tap into that revenue stream in several ways, Watkins says—for example, by 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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