Any search at Become.com will illustrate one of Yun and Yang’s first strategic decisions: to grant a high rank in search results to impartial product-review sites such as ConsumerReports.org and ConsumerSearch.com. Those sites appear in part because Become has a human element: a small team of researchers locates authoritative sites and places them into the site’s index. Machine-learning software then ranks other pages partly according to their relation to the authoritative sites. That’s a big departure from the approach taken by PageRank, which is fully automatic and sorts the pages resulting from a given query mainly according to the number of other pages that link to them. The more incoming links, the assumption goes, the more popular a page, and the more popular, the more relevant. But “with popularity-based link analysis, sites like ConsumerSearch.com would not always appear high in the results,” says Yang. “We fundamentally believe that there are certain things that humans can do better than algorithms.”
That’s not to say Become lacks clever algorithms of its own. For one thing, Yun and his small team of engineers (who were hired only after passing an exhaustive 20-hour programming test) devised a new type of crawler, which is a program that scans the Web and copies pages into a search engine’s index. Become’s crawler has been trained to recognize and throw out spam pages and non-shopping-related information. Then there’s Yun’s proudest accomplishment, the site’s core algorithm for sorting search results. Called AIR, for affinity index ranking, it differs from Google’s PageRank algorithm in two ways. First, when AIR assesses the importance of a given Web page, it takes into account the topics of the pages linking to it. (PageRank considers some elements of the context surrounding an incoming link, but not the page’s overall topic.) AIR rewards pages that have on-topic incoming links. Second, AIR penalizes pages that have outgoing links to off-topic pages. (PageRank does not examine a page’s outgoing links.) AIR’s dual process of rewarding and punishing pages based on the primacy of a specific topic means that the top search results for a query like refrigerators will be those most closely related to buying a refrigerator, not necessarily those with the most incoming links, as with PageRank.
For now, Become’s only revenues come from the keyword-based ads provided to thousands of sites by Google’s AdSense program. (Advertisers pay site owners for every click-through.) Later this year, the site will add classic price-comparison pages and charge merchants to list their wares. Become will earn a fee for every click-through to a merchant site, and a commission for any sales resulting from such click-throughs. Meanwhile, Yang says the company has enough capital – $4.5 million, including $2.5 million from one of mySimon’s initial backers, Japanese corporate investor Transcosmos – to keep its team of 24 employees running. That’s a lot less than the $30 million mySimon accumulated to support its 60 employees, but Yang says that’s deliberate. “Before, it was ‘Get big fast.’ It was land-grab mentality. Now it’s ‘Get profitable fast.’ And there is value in being self-sufficient. You don’t have to be at the whims of investors.” The company is currently trying to raise $12 million in second-round financing.
Officials at Transcosmos don’t take offense at Yang’s attitude. “Number one, we are a big fan of the comparison-shopping category,” says Shin Nakagura, vice president of business development at Transcosmos’s U.S. subsidiary. “Number two, we made a big return on mySimon, so it’s relatively easy to get the money together. Number three, we know those guys. And I think Become.com’s approach – starting with the more technically difficult point, pure search, and then adding the product comparison service – is a very good idea.”
Indeed, the longer one spends with Yang and Yun, the clearer it becomes that Become is a specialized-search company in a shopping site’s clothing. It doesn’t take much prodding to get Yun to admit that AIR could be applied not just to shopping but to any well-bounded search domain, such as health care – thereby chipping away at the audiences for general-purpose search sites. As Yun says, “I really feel that Become can become anything.” But he understands that in today’s climate, he won’t attract large investments until he proves that his first business can make money.