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

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Web for the best of certain topics—video games, pets, gardens, you name it—it would be a new, almost editorial layer to the Web itself. To curate and provide a great starting point for different vertical categories. That ended up being a very good investment. We invested at a pretty early stage, put in $3 million at the time, and as we recall back then, things moved a lot faster than they do these days at the market level. So it went public in late 1999. Eventually, after it was a profitable public company, it got bought and owned by the New York Times. The point there is that since that deal, all the way up to several deals we are involved in today, [the theme is] information search, information discovery, and how we access what continues to be an up-and-to-the-right growing amount of data.

X: Did you look at investing in Google back in the day?

SH: No. For me, I was only East Coast at the time. It was not something that crossed our path, but obviously it worked out well for folks. When you think about Google, it plays up some of the opportunities we see today. Google was the first company that really combined scale algorithms to index the Web, and had the granularity and needle-in-the-haystack keyword search, with human intelligence, which they were using through the form of editorially embedded hyperlinks to determine the quality and relevance of a website. The rest is history. They had the best of both worlds in quality and scale.

As we talk about deals at Vulcan, we sometimes talk about semantic Web, intelligent Web. There really is this emerging sort of evolution of data to be smarter, intelligent information. The machines and the algorithms can increasingly do more of the heavy lifting that we otherwise have to do. You type something into Google, you have to do the sifting through thousands of websites. Google is a great starting point, and we don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon. But if you can tap more technologies that do more of the work for you—one of the big opportunities to beat search is not search at all, but to reduce the need for search. By driving more automated discovery. Search is active. If you can have passive-based, intelligent discovery of information, you reduce the need to Google.

There are new opportunities there. We’re seeing that for sure with our investment in Evri, with our investment in Gist, and we also funded a company called Radar Networks in San Francisco which has a product called Twine. All of this is about “bring the data to me.” In an information-overload environment of the Web, if you can bring it to me in a way that I don’t have to think about, I can stay informed, I can discover, I can find what I need to know and not have to do all that work.

X: Where does all of this fit with the “semantic Web” framework, which has been around for almost a decade?

SH: Semantic Web or intelligent Web is a core theme that I’ve been excited about, and Paul [Allen] has been excited about. For whatever reason, we collectively, and some other folks internally, see the opportunity similarly. We’ve really been passionate about, “How do you drive innovation?” No matter how you slice it, Google is not the be-all, end-all for how we discover information. We’re not trying to out-Google Google, but there are new opportunities for how you drive these things.

Beginning in 2004, we really had a full landscape of the semantic Web theme. We spent a lot of time whiteboarding and brainstorming and prototyping different areas. How do you jumpstart it? How do you get it started? If you go a little deeper on semantic Web stuff for a moment, everyone talking about it assumes some new standard will emerge, and everyone will encode it into their pages, and the Web will suddenly be a smart corpus. [Computers would be able to understand the meaning of data and documents on the Web—Eds.].

That’s Tim Berners-Lee’s view of the world. That’s never going to happen. The Web is too … Next Page »

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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