In Factery Labs' Search Engine, Facts Trump Links

Despite Google’s inexorable gains in Internet search market share, search startups (and behemoths) keep trying to improve upon the search giant’s results.

Factery Labs, debuting early Nov. 17, aims to pick up where Google leaves off. Instead of providing the usual list of Web pages, the Menlo Park (Calif.)-based startup reads all those pages first and then extracts facts from them by zeroing in on sentences—strings with a subject, then a verb—and assuming they represent facts of some kind. Then it creates an index of those facts and ranks them. The technology is called FactRank, in a nod to Google’s patented PageRank.

“People want facts” out of their searches, says Factery Labs cofounder and President Paul Pedersen, a veteran of search engines such as Infoseek, Google, and Powerset and founder of data management firm Mark Logic. “They want to know right here and right now.”

Factery is focused at least for now on providing search results for real-time and social sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Yahoo's Delicious. Pedersen says traditional search engines don't work as well on real-time and social Web services because increasingly at least some people care more about what their friends and colleagues and other people they follow think is important news. Factery also isn't yet offering a full consumer search engine, instead forging partnerships with companies such as social network manager Sobees and encouraging other developers to use its technology.

Search for "Barack Obama" on Google and you get Google News links, Obama's Organizing for America site, a Wikipedia listing, and other links, but only with snippets of sentences. Search on Factery's FactFinder demo, and you'll get separate lists of facts based on Twitter recommendations and on Yahoo links (through Yahoo's Build your Own Search Service platform), such as "Barack Obama met students from Shanghai on a three-day visit to China," and "Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2009." While you still have to sift through those facts for whatever information you're looking for, the point is that you don't have to go through each Web page to find those facts.

Not all of these are provable facts, of course: One Twitter Recommendations "fact" mined from a site called reads: "Barack Obama once roundhouse kicked somebody so hard that they went back in time and crashed into Amelia Earhart’s plane." Right. But there are interesting nuggets.

On mobile devices in particular, Pedersen believes, a search engine that provides facts is potentially much more useful than traditional search engines. It's still cumbersome to click on links using tiny keyboards, and then follow those links to find what you're really looking for.

There's one downside to Factery's system, at least for now, and it's a big one: At least on the demo site, all that scanning and analysis of pages takes awhile to produce results--several seconds, in fact. Clearly, Pedersen concedes, that's too long, and he promises he will reduce that latency. He won't get very far if he doesn't.

As for how Factery will make money, Pedersen says that a ways off. But he envisions something like "sponsored facts," whereby a General Motors, say, can pay to display a fact that is (in fact) an advertisement. And of course, it can do regular search ads like Google does.

Factery Labs received $1.2 million in funding in September from U.S. Venture Partners, Pedersen, and angel investors including super-angel Ron Conway. The cofounder is Sean Gaddis, who also worked at Google and Powerset (bought by Microsoft), as well as Yoomba, eBay and its Skype unit.

Given how many search upstarts have failed to gain any traction against Google, Factery Labs remains a long bet. But it's reassuring that the industry doesn't have to depend only on Google to push the envelope.

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