How Zite’s News App Altered the Zeitgeist in Personalized Publishing

3/2/12Follow @wroush

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enhancing Web searches. The software crawled and tagged Web pages and offered its own personalized page recommendations alongside standard results from Google or Yahoo. “The idea was that the relevance problem had been solved by the big search engines, but the interestingness problem had not,” says Johnson, who met with me in late February. “When you type Walmart, you are going to get Walmart.com, but not interesting documents about Walmart.” Worio found and highlighted those documents (assuming that they existed, which is a little hard to believe in the Walmart example).

But the startup wasn’t attracting many users or commercial partners. In late 2009, the company invited Johnson—a former product manager at technology companies like Sidestep, Kosmix, and Powerset who had landed at Microsoft through its acquisition of Powerset in 2008—to become a part-time advisor. “My assessment was that it was a really interesting research project without a focus,” Johnson says. “There was all this technology under the hood to allow great recommendations personalized to you…but it just wasn’t coalescing.”

At Johnson’s urging, the company refocused its tagging technology on news content. Recommendations, the startup reasoned, would be more valuable as part of “a personalized magazine where you’re looking for a stream of information in a certain topic area,” in Johnson’s words. The company renamed itself Zite and started testing an online news reader. But beta users still didn’t get it. “We were wringing our hands, wondering what to do with the Web product,” Johnson says.

Then, in early 2010, something big happened that provided the element Zite had always been missing: a context that would make it relevant to everyday users. “Lo and behold, the iPad comes out,” says Johnson.

Big publishers rushed to produce news apps for the tablet, while smaller developers brought out iPad versions of traditional Web RSS aggregators. These apps took advantage of the iPad’s reading-friendly design and its touch display, but they didn’t do much to help readers discover promising new content that wasn’t already in their feeds. “RSS readers are interesting, sure, but you have the same problem on the iPad that you had on the Web with Google Reader,” says Johnson. “We realized that the iPad was changing the way we read news, and that we had the technology to allow us to change the way everyone reads news. That was really exciting to us.”

The company abandoned its Web service and focused solely on the iPad. Johnson calls the app they came up with “a personalized iPad magazine that gets smarter as you read it.” (There’s now an iPhone version as well.) The first time you use Zite, you connect it to your Twitter, Google Reader, Delicious, and Read It Later accounts, so it knows what you’ve already been reading and what kinds of news your friends are tweeting about. You also pick a few “sections” from Zite’s predefined list of several thousand topics—Automotive, for example, or Luxury Lifestyle or Venture Capital. Zite packages up the most interesting recent articles its Web crawler has identified in your topics and assembles them on magazine-like pages.

Tap on a headline, and the app will take you to a decluttered reader view of the article, or, if the publisher has requested it, to the original Web version. The app pays attention to what you read and don’t read, and alongside every article are controls that let you give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, or ask for more articles from a given author or containing a given term.

Unlike its biggest competitor, Flipboard, Zite doesn’t rely much on social signals about what the people in your network are reading or sharing. It personalizes your sections by learning from your actual behavior. Says Johnson: “What makes us really unique is that we look at millions of pieces of content daily and from those, we try to find the hundreds of pieces of content that are most interesting in general, and then most interesting to you.”

When the free app finally hit the iTunes App Store in early March, 2011, the company wasn’t prepared for the magnitude of the response. More than 100,000 people downloaded the app in the first week. “After five years of having hardly any users and making lots of different tries at products, it was a real shock,” says Johnson. Zite’s engineers spent some sleepless nights keeping the company’s servers afloat. And within a few weeks—to circle back to the beginning of our story—they were getting invitations from Sand Hill Road.

Johnson left Microsoft in order to become Zite’s new CEO in late April, 2011, taking over from co-founder Ali Davar. Part of his job was to smooth publishers’ feathers. The problem that provoked the C&D letter was that in the first release of the app, “reader mode” was turned on by default. This got rid of all the clutter around Web articles, but deprived publishers of … Next Page »

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

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  • http://www.dailygrommet.com Jules Pieri

    Wade: A pattern is forming. I start hearing about a new technology or service. I mean to check it out. I get distracted. I forget. And then you write a comprehensive piece on exactly that “new new thing” and sort it all out for me. I don’t necessarily dive in because you do–sometimes the opposite. Like when you tested iCloud day one and it was a cautionary tale. But in the case of Zite, you decoded the hype from reality and made me genuinely interested. Thanks!

    And great storytelling too…

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    Jules: Thanks as always for your kind comments. Being a scout and sorter-outer is exactly what I’ve been trying to do with this column over the years. (This is the 177th episode, if you can believe that.) Glad you are interested in Zite now — there is no cost to checking it out, other than your time. As for signing up for iCloud, I think it’s safe to proceed now. Just be sure you have a backup of your calendar data!

  • http://colemanfoley.com Coleman Foley

    Great write-up. Zite is an excellent app and has done an impressive job of going mainstream, better than any other personalized news app. Every person who uses Flipboard should at least use Zite in addition to Flipboard. For me, Zite has almost completely replaced Flipboard.

    The only shortfall I see is discovering content on niche topics. While it offers many pre-defined topics, you can’t follow, say, content discovery. You could follow a related topic and hope that Zite sees that you’re interested in content discovery, but that’s not good enough.

    It would be nice if there was even an imperfect way to follow any topic. I complement Zite with Trapit, which allows me to follow any topic, and finds good results for obscure topics like content discovery.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    Coleman: Thanks. I agree that Trapit’s technology will play a role as this whole area develops. FYI, I profiled the company last October, and they say they’re working on an iPad app of their own.

  • http://colemanfoley.com Coleman Foley

    Actually, I read that one, too. It is the best write-up I have seen on Trapit, and I have seen a lot, because I am kind of obsessed with Trapit and content discovery in general.

    By the way, what do you think about Prismatic (http://getprismatic.com)? It’s like a web-based Zite. I have been extremely impressed by its recommendations and UI. Seems like a lot of people are equally excited about it, too.

  • Amir Taaki

    “Or something might come along that makes micropayments a lot easier.”

    Bitcoin.

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  • http://www.isustainableearth.com Going Green

    Old media and new media need to learn from one another and we will all win… As this article proves, as long as everyone gets paid they can play well in the sandbox.

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