The Web’s Last Word on Words

10/26/11Follow @wroush

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the partnership actually came about after he ran into TaskRabbit’s vice president of engineering, Brian Leonard, at their kids’ playground. “Brian said, ‘You guys know a lot about words—well, I have a word problem,’” says Tam.

The problem was that people who post tasks on TaskRabbit aren’t always very good at categorizing them, which makes it harder for errand runners to find suitable tasks on the site. “In TaskRabbit’s case, child care and baby-sitting and day care mean roughly the same thing, so we thought if we ran our classification algorithms against their text, we could do a good job of matching and categorizing,” says Tam.

Using Wordnik’s existing application programming interface, or API, the two companies built the auto-categorization system in a matter of weeks, he says. You can see the technology in action today at the bottom of any TaskRabbit task page, where there’s a section for “Tasks similar to this one.” Using a similar matching system, Wordnik can help TaskRabbit users decide how much money to offer for a given task, by finding examples of similar tasks in TaskRabbit’s database.

There are many companies like TaskRabbit where the words aren’t the main point, but where more efficient communication could make a big difference, Hyrkin and McKean argue. “Companies shouldn’t have to think about hiring an editor,” McKean says. “They should be able to use the content they’ve already got and get more out of it.”

Wordnik makes its API available to third-party developers, and there’s a growing set of Web and mobile apps that tap into the Word Graph, such as Panabee, a “brainstorm engine” that helps startups find available company names and Web domains. Many of these apps hit the market without any direct involvement from Wordnik, McKean says. “The best thing is when we find out about these apps after they’ve launched, and they’ve done well,” she says. Of course, only a certain number of free API calls are allowed—after hitting a certain threshold, developers need to contact Wordnik to talk about licensing terms.

Hyrkin and McKean say they’re working on a number of bigger deals with commerce and publishing partners, but they won’t be able to share details until the deals are inked, likely in 2012. “The larger they are, the less you want to talk about them until it’s done,” McKean says.

In a sense, Wordnik wants to grow into the BASF of digital text—it doesn’t make a lot of the words you use, but it wants to make the words you use more interesting. The ultimate sign of success? Seeing Wordnik itself turn up in dictionaries, and as more than just a noun. Says McKean, “We would like to be a verb—’Wordnik that.’”

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

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