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War Of The People Search

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I moderated a fascinating panel tonight at Google headquarters that included execs from three “people search engines” – the CEO of Wink (Michael Tanne), the CEO of Spock (Jaideep Singh), and the COO of Zoominfo (Bryan Burdick).

The panel was very timely. Earlier today the Wall Street Journal published an article called “You’re Nobody Unless Your Name Googles Well” that outlined the exact problem these search engines are trying to solve – finding information about people on the web, many of whom have identical names. The article didn’t mention the efforts of these startups, instead focusing entirely on Google, but it did note a few interesting statistics. There are, for example, 158 million results on Google for the name “John Smith” (I actually see 225 million, but who’s counting).

Big statistics are thrown around when people talk about people search. Singh says around 30% of searches are people-related. Tanne says 2 billion searches per month are on people (Facebook data tends to suggest this is probably vastly underestimated).

Still, it’s not clear that this market is huge. The big advertising dollars tend to come in for product and service-related searches, not for searches on John Smith.

Spock, Wink and Zoominfo each have very different products, reflecting their different philosophies on business models, target markets, and control over information.

Wink

Wink changed course in November 2006 and began providing search results on people from social networks like MySpace, LinkedIn and Bebo. Users search based on name, geography and other criteria (company, school, whatever) and see results from major social networks. Tanne says they now have over 175 million distinct individuals indexed on their site.

Users can claim their Wink profile, proving their ownership of various profiles on social networks by entering in the email they use for those accounts.

Wink relies on advertising for revenue, and Tanne says they can get $2 or so in revenue per thousand page impressions. He also hinted at other revenue streams down the road, such as lead generation for other services.

Wink raised $7 million in venture capital but did a partial stock buy-back earlier this year.

Spock

Spock hasn’t launched yet, but the demos we’ve seen show it to be a direct competitor to Wink. The company, which raised $7 million in a Series A round of financing, is in private beta and should launch in the next couple of months.

See our overview for a more complete description of the service. Spock is an ambitious effort – Singh says they will index the entire web to search for people-related data, although for now they are focusing on high payoff sites like Wikipedia.

Once data is found, Spock analyzes it to de-dupe others with the same or similar name and then creates a user profile for the individual. Tags are created dynamically and relationships with other individuals are noted. Readers can then add additional tags or vote the existing ones up or down. An individual can also claim their own profile by proving their identity, and get enhanced voting power on their descriptive tags.

Like Wink, Spock is focused on generating advertising revenue.

Spock will generate a lot of controversy because individuals are not in complete control of their profile. The community decides on descriptive tags for a person, so Bill Clinton’s profile includes such terms as “sex scandal” and “impeached United States Official.” Litigation is sure to follow from celebrity types not happy with their Spock profile, but Singh said flat out tonight that the site will firmly fight any attempts to defy the community’s decisions on descriptive tags. I’m betting there are one or two legal precedents out there on this, perhaps involving Wikipedia disputes.

Spock also has a vertical logo, which is totally cool.

Zoominfo

Zoominfo was the black sheep of the group. They were founded long ago, in 2000, making them a great grandfather by Internet startup standards. They are well into their revenue phase with $12 in sales last year, and are profitable.

The service is completely business focused (it’s more of a competitor to LinkedIn than Wink or Spock) and pulls data from press releases and corporate bios on websites. A lot of data is free, but certain searches require a subscription that starts at $100/month. They’ve recently updated their site with a more contemporary design, but their business model of keeping data behind a paywall is very web 1.0 (hey, they’re profitable though).

Who’s Best?

Zoominfo is a solid business, but elicited little enthusiasm from the attendees at the panel this evening. Press release quotes and corporate bios just don’t get these Silicon Valley types fired up. Spock is yet to launch and has the benefit of controlling its messaging and user experience for the time being. Controversy sells, and the first few profile disputes are sure to bring lots of traffic to the site. But until it launches there’s just no way to effectively judge it. Wink is a solid search engine but people are still digesting the “bad” news of its product shift away from more traditional search and it’s stockholder buyout.

There are many others playing in this sandbox too, such as Streakr , ProfileLinker, LinkedIn and Upscoop. Many of these overlap a lot with Wink, but less so with Spock. As I mentioned above, it’s also not clear just how big this people search “sand box” really is.

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