A Know-It-All IM Buddy

A Kansas startup adds “social search” to instant messaging.

If you had a buddy who was all-knowing, infinitely patient, good at undlerstanding your questions, and always available through instant messaging, you’d probably turn to him rather than a traditional search engine for information.

And that’s what Kozoru, a startup based in Overland Park, KS, wants to train you to do – except that the “buddy” is a piece of software. Kozoru’s technology, which launches June 5, turns instant messaging (IM) into a social search engine. Type a question into AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), wait for Kozoru’s system to survey authoritative websites, and see an answer materialize.

What appears is not a list of ranked pages with the fact you need buried deep inside, though. Rather, Kozoru (a Japanese word that means “to gather,” as in a band of samurai gathering to do good and combat evil) delivers a full-sentence answer, just as your buddy with the encyclopedic mind might. For instance, to the question “What was McHale’s Navy?” Kozoru responds, “McHale’s Navy was an American television sitcom series. The series ran for 138 thirty-minute episodes (along with a one-hour pilot) from 1962 to 1966 on ABC,” and then links to a Wikipedia page for more information.

As hope and capital coalesce around Web 2.0, one of the areas of greatest frenzy is social networking: media and merger-and-acquisition darlings such as Facebook, Flickr, and MySpace attract millions of visitors per month, who are eager to interact, share, and create content. Another area is second-generation search, in which heavyweights such as Autonomy, IBM, and Inxight are moving beyond simple key-word searches made ubiquitous by Google. Using sophisticated pattern-recognition software and natural-language processing, these companies are attempting to identify the meaning behind the words.

Kozoru’s technology is what Web 2.0 mavens call a “mashup” of these two trends. The company started in July 2004 by attacking the problem of natural-language understanding. “Computers are terrible at language problems,” says John Flowers, Kozoru’s founder and CEO. By statistically analyzing how words are used in human language, Flowers says, Kozoru can deliver relevant search results based not on key words but on entire sentences and the meaning behind them.

“If you ask a question, we will answer that question in a way you expect to be answered,” says Flowers. Ask Jeeves, now simply, once marketed itself in a similar way, but its answers were generated by humans building question-and-answer sets. (Ask Jeeves cofounder David Warthen is on Kozoru’s board.)

Many search companies and other firms lay claim to advances in natural-language processing. A quick test of Kozoru’s product shows that its service is like most others – hit or miss. But one clear distinction is that Kozoru places Web searching within the medium of IM, which Flowers says alters the expectations and the experience of users. Suddenly, they’re typing in questions, not just a few key words, and expecting full-sentence answers.

Other companies have used IM as a vehicle for more limited types of searches. Kayak, a travel search aggregator, has released KayakBot for AIM, which searches for flight and rental-car information. The venerable Wall Street Journal has long had an AIM bot, WSJ, that will retrieve stock quotes when users type in ticker symbols. Yahoo has filed patent applications in the area.

But Kozoru’s technology adds another wrinkle that gets to the heart of social networking. Kozoru doesn’t scan the entire Web; rather, users must identify sites they want to search by constructing a “byoms” (from “build your own mobile search”; company insiders pronounce the word like “biomes”). Users can set up a byoms to search a single site or handful of sites, on the theory that Kozuro’s natural language technology will improve on a site’s own search engine. That byoms, in essence, becomes another AIM buddy.

Significantly, they can also expand their universe of trusted sites by tapping into another user’s byoms. If an A-list blogger such as columnist Andrew Sullivan decided to collect the 50 websites that he considers his most important sources of information, for example, he could fold all of them into one byoms and publish it for others to use. Sullivan would, in a sense, be adding value to the search with his own editorial judgment.

“We will have publishers and we will have consumers,” says Flowers. “People could build and share their own search, and that is exciting to me.”

Adding social search capabilities to instant messaging may strike a chord with consumers. “The medium of IM has been underappreciated by nearly everyone in the media business for one reason: the leaders of the business didn’t use [it],” John Battelle, a founder of Wired magazine, writes in his blog on search, media, and technology. “But lord knows the rest of the world sure does.”

Yet at least one observer who follows the instant-messaging market wonders whether search and IM are a natural match. “To me it doesn’t sound like [Kozoru] is adding all that much,” says Charles Golvin, an analyst with the market research firm Forrester.

To Golvin, other applications take better advantage of IM’s unique ability to identify a user’s presence and availability on the network. For example, people using the networking site LinkedIn might want to know who in their personal network is also online. To that end, AOL has announced that it will enable sites such as LinkedIn to access its IM network. Golvin says eBay will likely offer buyers and sellers something similar with its Skype voice-over-Internet service.

The e-commerce possibilities are rife: customers on shopping sites might use IM to talk directly to customer service, or even to tap directly into a store’s inventory to find out if the CD they want is in stock and on sale.

If search techniques were to take advantage of IM’s real strength in social networking – identifying who is present and ready to respond – then even Golvin believes the strategy might have promise. “Social networking is shifting control to consumers and away from institutions,” he says. “As long as you are dealing with large amounts of information, search is fundamental to that. Search will be embedded in everything.”

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