WhitePages IDs Growth in the Explosion of Personal Data

8/20/12Follow @curtwoodward

This is the golden age for data nerds—especially if you collect data on people.

With Facebook steaming toward 1 billion users and smartphones now accounting for more than half the cell phone market in the U.S., the amount of digital information the average person generates about their lives has exploded. And it’s not going to stop.

Here’s one way measure that river of information: At Seattle online directory company WhitePages, number-crunchers are now ingesting more than 1 billion records about businesses and people every single month.

Those records are the basis for WhitePages’ growing array of products, from its basic Web-based people search to advanced apps, like a new Android offering that turns social media profiles into a cool spin on caller ID.

Around the WhitePages office, they like to say the work is sort of like being in the oil refining business. “The challenge is not in obtaining or sourcing new data,” founder and CEO Alex Algard says. “It’s what we do with that data.”

The company started in 1997, basically as a side project. Algard, who was working in finance at the time, noticed that the WhitePages.com Web address was sitting unused under the control of a service provider.

Algard

He got it for a bargain price, and at first built a simple directory service. “This was literally my moonlight project,” Algard recalls. “It was 1 to 2 am, when I had some free time.” But soon enough, Algard’s stint in investment banking was over, and he moved to Seattle. At first, WhitePages was pretty much what it sounds like: An online version of the phone book. That information is still a key part of the WhitePages database, but it’s got lots more company now.

While Algard wouldn’t give me specific examples, he said a lot of the information comes from telecom companies and public records. Anyone who’s worked with government data can tell you that there’s a ton of information just sitting out there. But you really have to know how to find it.

“All on its own, any of the elements we have in our database you’d be able to find,” Algard says. “But we do a better job, I think, of stitching it together into a single, authoritative profile about you.”

Those skills apparently have translated into a strong business. Algard wouldn’t discuss financial results in detail, but he does say the company has long been profitable. It’s also attracted investment cash, with Providence Equity Partners and Technology Crossover Ventures investing $45 million in 2005. Previous reports have pegged WhitePages’ revenue as high as $66 million in 2008.

By next year, Algard says, WhitePages’ profit should be double what it was in 2011 (the vast majority of the company’s reveneut comes from traditional online advertising). WhitePages could eventually be headed to the public markets, but an acquisition isn’t out of the question, either—although it doesn’t sound like WhitePages is looking to make either of those leaps immediately.

WhitePages remains a pretty small company, with just about 100 employees—Algard recently boasted on Twitter that the site has 44 million monthly unique visitors and just 36 engineers. But it’s been using its cash to branch out for the future by developing new Web and mobile applications and strengthening the database technology at the core of everything.

It’s a matter of necessity for a company that was built before people really started ditching land-line phones and essentially handing out tons of information about their relationships, their travels, and their favorite businesses and products.

Some of WhitePages offerings have been attempts to capitalize on the trends of the day, like the DealPop daily-deals service that was sold to Seattle’s Tippr last year. Other experiments seem closer to the core of WhitePages’ expertise, like the still-developing Neighbors feature that overlays names and phone numbers on a Bing map of addresses, with the idea that people could schedule parties or meetups with those living nearby.

WhitePages’ latest creation might be its most ambitious. In an update of its previous caller ID app for Android smartphones, WhitePages integrated social and professional networking with local information, like weather and news headlines. So, when a friend calls, you’re able to see what’s going on in their city, check out a short version of their LinkedIn profile, and see their last tweet or Facebook post. As one reviewer said, it’s “like caller ID on steroids.”

“We’re really bridging the virtual world with the real world. And when you do that, there’s some really magic opportunities to create tons of usefulness,” Algard says.

And while the new caller ID app was a pretty big milestone for WhitePages, there was another change that will have an even bigger effect. Just in the past month, WhitePages rebuilt its core database, moving from a SQL-based system toward the more modern noSQL database technology. Those systems can grow faster, handle more data, and be spread across servers more efficiently than their predecessors—making it easier and cheaper to manipulate the kind of wildly growing data that WhitePages collects.

Along with that update, WhitePages also re-launched its application programming interface and its system for letting Web users “claim” their profile and (the company hopes) add more data for the company to crunch, such as cell phone numbers. “It was the biggest re-architecture we’ve ever done of our systems,” Algard says.

It’s pretty interesting that a company founded on a decidedly old-school identifier—the humble phone number—has stuck around long enough to see so many changes in the attitudes about public identity.

When WhitePages started, anonymity reigned online, revered as one of the fundamental principles of Web use. These days, of course, real identities are increasingly the currency of our digital worlds, a change forced by Facebook and its drive to “make the world more open and connected.”

Oh, and that whole data-hound thing? It’s becoming pretty fashionable, too.

“A lot of Web companies are becoming more data-oriented. I think they’re all realizing that, fundamentally, what they have in common is they build databases, and they’re all for some single purpose,” Algard says. “It’s an exciting time for us. We’ve been doing this for well over a decade.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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