Seeking a Better Web Search

Anyone who has spent any time online knows that trolling for useful information can be a chore. A search for the latest news on the presidential campaign, for instance, frequently lists references to spoof sites alongside articles written six months ago - neither of which is particularly useful to someone looking for timely analysis of this week's caucuses in Iowa.

The problem spells opportunity for Rakesh Mathur, an entrepreneur with an impressive startup record. His most recent venture, a comparison-shopping service called Junglee, was acquired by Amazon.com in 1998 for 1.9 million shares. The 43-year-old graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay also founded a company called Armedia, which last year was sold to Broadcom for $70 million. Mathur's latest creation, Purple Yogi, recently came out of hiding with software that helps fine-tune searches on the Internet.

The company - whose name alludes to Eastern seekers of enlightenment - is trying to fill a tall order. Purple Yogi wants to bring higher fidelity to Web searches without compromising user privacy. The result is software that sits on a hard drive and builds a detailed index based on the surfer's browsing habits.

As someone reads articles about candidates George W. Bush and John McCain, for example, Yogi can soon figure out that the surfer is interested in recent election news and will then suggest a host of news stories across the Web that meet that criteria. The software can also figure out that a reader is interested in following Republican candidates but has no interest in candidates from the other parties.

"We're reducing the distance between you and the information you're looking for," says Mathur. He likens his software to Amazon's ability to offer product suggestions based on a user's past searches and purchases: "This is like the Amazon.com recommendation engine across the Web."

Mathur is vague on exactly how the software will make money. He says he'll probably generate revenues by serving targeted banner ads or from making e-commerce plays. He brushes off criticism about his lack of specifics, noting that Junglee's technology for virtual databases also lacked a strong business model until the e-commerce revolution put comparison-shopping services in high demand.

Of more immediate concern, notes Mathur, is building trust among potential users. Purple Yogi will fulfill its promise only if it has detailed information about how users like to spend time online. If the information Purple Yogi collects were to fall into the hands of government authorities, direct marketers or hackers, the consequences for user privacy could be disastrous.

The service claims to be unique in that it stores all information on a user's hard drive and even then requires a password to prevent others with access to the computer from tapping into the database. In the event Purple Yogi serves up targeted ads, Mathur adds, his server will be unable to track which users receive what banners.

A test version of Purple Yogi is expected to be available on the company's Web site this month, and a release will be released in March. Mathur plans to have 1 million users within a year, 10 million users after two years and 100 million users after three. "What's absolutely critical for us is consumer love and consumer trust," he says. To date, Purple Yogi has received $3 million in funding - half of that from Intel, where two of the startup's founders, Ramesh Subramonian and Ramana Venkata, worked on data-mining projects. Purple Yogi is only one of many new products designed to make the experience of surfing the Net less static by bringing new functionality to a Web browser. Companies such as Gooey and Cahoots have added chat, while SideTalk, Octopus and Backflip offer new ways to store, organize and browse content online. However, the new plug-ins haven't exactly taken the online world by storm.

Still, Mathur plans to follow his well-worn entrepreneurial path with Purple Yogi. "It's going to be a required piece" for browsers, he says. "I'm in this to take it to the public markets and beyond."

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