If a friend suggested that you check out an Internet search service called Kosmix, you might start by tapping kosmix.com into your browser — or you might, as the saying goes, just Google it.
The options suggest what Kosmix and every other search startup is up against. With Yahoo puzzling over its strategy in the No. 2 position, and No. 3 Microsoft reportedly spending up to $100 million to market Bing as a "decision" engine, the odds of any newcomer succeeding in this land of the giants may seem slim.
But Kosmix founders Venky Harinarayan and Anand Rajaraman, say they know better than to take on Google or anyone else delivering those familiar lists of blue links. As the Web constantly adds information and images — and as smart-phones and social networks like Twitter and Facebook add new dimensions to search — Kosmix, based in Mountain View, is getting attention for its efforts to differentiate itself as a better way to navigate the growing online clutter.
To look up, say, wonton soup on the search giants leads the user to a list of blue links, some with photos. Kosmix delivers a multimedia showcase. The page is topped by a Wikipedia summary, and a quick scroll leads to a sizable window for how-to videos, blog commentary and conversations, nutritional data and more. A column on the right includes items like Chinese cookbooks on eBay and 24-pack instant wonton shiitake soup from Amazon. There are also a few "sponsored links" — the advertising that is key to the Kosmix business model.
As one blogger described it, Kosmix delivers "an instant encyclopedia page, but on crazy-awesome Internet steroids." Some recent search startups such as Cuil and hakia have fallen far short of their hype, says Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land, an industry news site. Kosmix, he said, has had some success in the health field with a vertical search site called RightHealth. But it's not yet clear whether some of its broader initiatives — the core Kosmix search and a personalized news service called MeeHive — will win a mass following.
If search grows and evolves the way television did — splintering from a few dominant channels to a multitude — Kosmix and other search players may establish significant roles, Sullivan said.
Kosmix's founders say they are patient. "We have a real long-term opportunity," Harinarayan said. He suggested that the Web is only in "inning two" of a nine-inning game. Kosmix and its founders convey an almost serene sense of confidence amid the frenetic hustle of Silicon Valley. Harinarayan and Rajaraman established track records as successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists — another reason Kosmix has been dubbed a "startup to watch" by tech mavens.
The duo, who teamed up at Stanford as contemporaries of Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page, prospered in the dot-com boom with Junglee, a startup they sold to Amazon for $250 million.
Later they formed Cambrian Ventures, making several lucrative seed investments with money raised from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and other successful entrepreneurs. Rather than raising a new fund, they launched Kosmix in 2005, which has raised $55 million from Accel Partners, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Dag Ventures and Time Warner, as well as such A-list angel investors as Bezos and former Motorola CEO Ed Zander.
While Google activates with buttons labeled "Google Search" or "I'm Feeling Lucky" — and Bing uses a symbolic magnifying glass — the Kosmix button says "Explore."
Kosmix's choice of "explore" suggests its qualitative difference. The service is designed to help people who wish to delve more deeply into a topic and aren't in a hurry, and is better for "browsing" a subject area, Harinarayan said. On her blog Life After College, Silicon Valley tech worker Jenny Blake described a comparison between a Google and a Kosmix search. Her doctor had informed her that her triglycerides were slightly high, "which means I need to cut back on my sugar intake."
First she tried Google, "and came up with the typical list of sites to check: WebMD,About.com and Wikipedia," she wrote. "But then I tried my search on Kosmix, and rather than having to click back and forth between a bunch of links, I had a whole page of information to peruse. The Kosmix page had a Wikipedia summary, articles, resources, videos, images, Q&A, blogs and even tweets! I was (and still am) thoroughly impressed."
Sullivan, the editor of Search Engine Land, says the search industry is in a dynamic phase. Reacting to a flurry of positive reviews for Microsoft's Bing, "Google has had to roll out its own guide to interesting things you can do on Google," he said. Meanwhile, Twitter is having a marked impact because it is generating so much unique data and so many "tweets" are themselves a search request, Sullivan said.
The emergence of Twitter, Facebook and other sites as generators of information, Harinarayan said, should benefit Kosmix, because it means there is simply that much more information to organize. "We see the Web as this Library of Alexandria — a repository of all human knowledge," Harinarayan said.
That seemed to tread dangerously close to Google's stated mission: "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." But no, Harinarayan said, Kosmix's ambitions aren't that big. "We just want to organize the Web."
Tags: Kosmix, Google search, Cuil, Bing, Hakia, Library of Alexandria, WEbMD, About.com, Wikipedia, Accel Partners, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Dag Ventures, Time Warner, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Stanford, Venky Harinarayan, Anand Rajaraman