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

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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, 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 »

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

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