How Semantic and Social Search Are Evolving: Lessons From the Evri-Twine Merger

3/15/10Follow @gthuang

What’s really happening in the emerging fields of semantic and social Web search? I’ve been thinking about this since last week’s merger of Seattle-based Evri and San Francisco-based Radar Networks, the developer of Twine.com. The real story is not that one Paul Allen-backed company has acquired another, or that any investors got hosed in the deal, but rather that semantic and social search are converging in a complex way—and that giants like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are paying close attention to these developments as they work to stay ahead of nimble startups.

The semantic search sector is where researchers and companies are using advanced algorithms to better understand what people mean when they search for content on the Web. Semantic search is also about making connections between online entities like people, places, and products, so as to present results to consumers in a more useful way. These techniques use natural language processing and other technologies to try to go far beyond the traditional methods of Web search, like matching keywords and ranking the relevance of documents. But they must work well, and small efforts have struggled to get enough traffic and user data.

An example might be that if you typed in “hurt locker seattle,” you would get back information about “The Hurt Locker,” local show times and locations, and also links to news about the movie’s cast and crew, their related projects, and other war-themed movies—all in a way that reflected your personal browsing interests.

Meanwhile, social search, which is sometimes called real-time search, has made more progress in the journey from concept to practical reality. You can think of this as search engines that incorporate up-to-the-minute data from social sites like Twitter and Facebook. Google and Microsoft’s Bing already have strong efforts in this arena, and many startups are actively building search engines for Twitter and other social media.

It’s clear that Web search is going through some major growing pains. And as search technologies become more integrated into everyday activities like shopping, social networking, traveling, and mobile Web browsing, more companies across a wide spectrum will have a stake in it. In other words, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Twitter, Expedia, Kayak, and Apple’s iPhone app store all have social-semantic search problems. A key question for entrepreneurs and investors is, what is the best approach for building and marketing a startup in this sector? I’ve gathered a few perspectives from outside experts to help focus the discussion.

But first, some more details on last week’s merger. Will Hunsinger, Evri’s CEO, tells me he started talking with Radar Networks founder Nova Spivack last year about working together, and that they saw a cultural fit between their companies, which were solving “similar consumer problems.” Hunsinger says the combined organization of just over 30 staff (about 10 from Twine) is looking to consolidate its efforts into one website in the coming months. He also says Evri is “not walking away from” … 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. Follow @gthuang

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