Second Down, Ten Yards to Go for Matchmine

When we first wrote about Needham, MA-based Matchmine last September, the Kraft Group spinoff had just introduced its MatchKey “portable preferences” system, which is designed to put an end to the fragmented state of recommendation systems on the Web. Right now, every online retailer, video rental site, or music site you visit—be it Amazon, Netflix, or iTunes—has a separate system for recording what types of products you like and recommending new ones based on your preferences. Matchmine’s concept is to consolidate your preferences into a single mathematical representation, your MatchKey, that would follow you across many sites and many types of products and media, sparing you the hassle of educating each site separately—and sparing smaller online businesses who join the MatchKey network the need to create in-house recommendation systems at all.

The idea sounded great, but in practice, there have been some bumps along the way. Matchmine announced at the Demo conference in San Diego last September that its first two commercial partners would be Fuzz, a guide to the local music scene in San Francisco and Seattle, and movie rating site FilmCrave. But it took another six months to get the MatchKey service working on their sites (it went live on both sites on March 31).

In that time, “We made a bunch of headway and uncovered a bunch of opportunities as well as a bunch of problems with the product side of things,” says Matchmine CEO Mike Troiano. For one thing, the company found that the process it had engineered for creating a MatchKey—which involved going to a central website, answering a long series of questions about one’s media preferences, and then downloading some software—created much too forbidding a barrier for most potential users. Also, it was taking too long for Matchmine to sign up new media-site partners, process their catalogs, and integrate the MatchKey scheme with their existing account-management systems.

This week Matchmine seems to be putting its long winter behind it and taking some big steps toward spreading its technology. Yesterday it named four new media partners—music, podcast, and video aggregation site Odeo, blog search engine Blogdigger (an Odeo subsidiary), blog directory Blogged, and high-definition video site MediaMelon—and promises to have the MatchKey system up and running on those sites “in a matter of weeks, not months,” in Troiano’s words.

MatchKey Network MembersThe company, which emerged from the same part of the Kraft Group responsible for the New England Patriots’ website and multimedia offerings, also detailed the improvements it’s made to its platform to make it easier to use—both for consumers who want to sign up for MatchKeys and for new commercial partners who want to get the system working with their sites. “It’s night and day, in terms of how easy it is now to get started,” says Troiano.

For one thing, Matchmine has done away with the downloadable software. Now users’ MatchKeys live entirely online, and are accessed behind the scenes on each participating website to guide the local recommendation engine. If you go to Fuzz or Filmcrave and you don’t yet have a MatchKey, you can easily create one that applies just to that site by answering just a few questions about your music or movie preferences. Later, you can decide whether to “promote” your local MatchKey so that it can keep track of your preferences across many sites. (The company has set up a new website that explains to potential users how the consumer-facing side of the system works.)

Though MatchKeys don’t yet work with top online brands like Netflix, Amazon, or Last.fm, Troiano says the company will soon roll out a feature that allows users to train their MatchKeys quickly by, in essence, sucking up the information in the preferences and ratings they’ve already expressed at such sites. (Many major consumer sites have public application programming interfaces or APIs that allow outside programmers to extract and re-use this kind of information.) “That would enable me, for example, to make sure that the preferences I’ve expressed at Netflix are reflected in the recommendations I am getting from FilmCrave,” explains Troiano.

To make it easier for new partners to get on board the MatchKey network, Matchmine has created both a Javascript “widget” that can be plugged into an existing content-oriented website, and its own simplified API that partners can tap into if they want more control over the look, feel, and behavior of the recommendations that the system provides.

Troiano says Matchmine will be announcing more new media partners soon, but he admits that all of them, for the time being, will be “middle-tier partners, companies that may not have 10 million unique visitors a week but have some interesting buzz and people who are smart about the space.” Once Matchmine has spent some time boostrapping itself with help from these medium-sized partners, Troiano says, it will then have the clout to approach the Netflixes and Amazons: “We have the formula now to get a whole bunch of those guys up and running in the MatchKey network, and having done that, we will have a very different value proposition for some of the tier-one guys, because now there will be a million MatchKeys floating around and a whole bunch of places where people can train their keys to be an accurate reflection of their tastes.”

But the partners who come in earlier, Troiano emphasizes, are getting a better deal. Matchmine’s business model is two-pronged: it takes a commission on sales generated as a result of recommendations made through its system, and its splits with partners the advertising revenue on any additional page views generated when users spend more time on a site exploring material recommended via their MatchKeys. Partners who sign up with Matchmine now will get to keep more of that money.

Of course, plenty of other companies are vying for consumers’ attention with other forms of recommendation technology: just this week, San Francisco-based personalized recommendation service RichRelevance, founded by veterans of Amazon and eBay, announced it has raised several million dollars in new venture funding. “There is a lot of competition in this space right now,” Troiano acknowledges. “But I feel like we’re showing that most of these guys are still doing first-generation media discovery,” with everyone’s preferences stuck in separate silos across dozens of sites. “We’re taking a different route.”

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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