The Future of Search and the Intelligent Web, From Vulcan Capital’s Steve Hall

6/1/09Follow @gthuang

Search is hot again. Just when you thought Google had everything figured out, along comes Microsoft with its new search engine, Bing. This upstart effort may not supplant the search king, or even compete with it all that seriously, but it will certainly make things interesting for a while.

Even more interesting, though, is the batch of new technologies and businesses bubbling up around the edges of traditional Web search. Take software that helps you understand relationships between people, places, and products online. Or Web services that try to collect content you are interested in, let you share it with others, and keep you up to date with the latest news about people you know. Google itself is getting into the act with its new Wave tool, which integrates e-mail, instant messages, documents, wikis, tweets, and other social media—all the comforts and stresses of modern life, really—in one place.

All of this raises the broader question of how we’re going to deal with all these different data streams on the Web and use them to improve our work and personal lives, rather than waste time doing an endless (and growing) number of searches for relevant information. To hear more about this emerging space, Luke and I talked recently with one of the field’s leading investors, Vulcan Capital managing director Steve Hall. (See also our wider-ranging interview with Hall and Vulcan Capital president Chris Temple here.)

In recent years, Hall has led investments in companies like ZoomInfo, Radar Networks, Evri, and Gist (the latter two are in Seattle), which all play in an arena he calls “information discovery and the intelligent Web.” Hall emphasized that “Google is not the be-all, end-all for how we discover information.” Indeed, in a deep dive into the technology and business opportunities of this fast-moving space, he talked about how companies can “rewire the Web” to be smarter, how to beat today’s search engines and help people find information more efficiently, and why World Wide Web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee is wrong about the “semantic Web”—his original notion that computers will someday be able to understand all kinds of content and transactions online, if we help them by tagging things like photos and documents with descriptions of their meaning.

An edited account of our discussion follows:

Xconomy: What is your background in online search and the intelligent Web?

Steve Hall: One of the themes I’ve been involved in, really since I started doing venture in 1998, has been information discovery, search, and evolution of Internet data. The first venture deal I ever did in 1998 is now called About.com. It used to be called The Mining Company. At the time, our thesis was that the amount of data on the Web is going up and to the right. It’s hard to find the needles in the haystack. Yahoo, Excite, and Lycos were portals, a main interface to the data, but they were largely a taxonomy directory of websites. You didn’t have very good needle in the haystack searchability. You had AltaVista, which had started, but didn’t have real relevancy control to it—there was no quality output on AltaVista.

Our thesis at the time was if you had humans, experts on many topics, comb through the … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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