Minekey at Stanford & on TechCrunch

I have written about Minekey in the past. It’s a startup that I had been involved in back in college. Today, was a great day for Minekey because it launched a new revamped site, with a much cooler widget and loads of customizability options which is what users have been looking for. The new site looks absolutely super-cool. Kudos to the team who’ve been working hard day and night.

The new updated offering is being showcased at the Always on Stanford Summit 2007, as one of the top 50 participants at the Stanford University campus. It is truly a momentous occasion for all of us — employees, alumni and well-wishers of Minekey. Minekey had also presented at Proto.in at IIT Madras last weekend.

Meanwhile, Minekey has been TechCrunched. This should drive a lot of traffic to the site, and create a lot of traction. I just hope that the servers can scale to the hits it is going to get in the next few days.

A word about Minekey again. Minekey aims to make the life of blog-readers simple by providing them recommendations based on both the content of the current page as well as the reader’s past reading habits. So, if the reader is generally interested in cricket news and visits a web-page about the stock market, it will show links from both cricket as well as stock market. It takes personalization to a whole new level because current services only provide recommendations based on the current context. The blog publisher can indicate a list of sources from which Minekey should aggregate content so show recommendations on their website. Hence, if you have multiple blogs you can aggregate content across all of them.

If you haven’t yet, try it out!

[Sadly, WordPress.com does not allow blogs to add custom widgets and so I can’t be the user of the Minekey widget :(]

UPDATE:

Some more coverage: pluGGd.in, StartupSquad, TekJuice, Bona Bhatia, Gulker, Rajiv Doshi, Delip Andra, 9:01AM, Venture Beat, VC Circle, alarm:clock, BlogSchmog, WebWare, ContentSutra, Pavithra, reyes-chow, American Venture Magazine,

And it’s also made it to today’s del.icio.us popular. (Link may not work later. If someone knows how to find the permalink of a particular day’s popular on del.icio.us, please let me know!)

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In the midst of a heated discussion with Mohit about The Long Tail (I think Chris Anderson gets unnecessary credit — It really was the monkey-god Hanuman who taught us what a long and potent tail could do, but that’s another story):

I: The Internet is a classic example of the Long Tail. So, is Google because they are able to monetize all those keywords which will never earn a penny if published in a magazine.

M: I wonder who clicks on the Sponsored Ads in Google.

I: I never do. Do you?

M: I don’t either. I can’t count having clicked more than 5-6 times all my life (that includes clicks by mistake). I think it’s all click-fraud.

I: I don’t know. But that would need to be a big scam!

M: But then, somebody has to be dumb enough to click all those ads.

I: I think it’s the Americans.

Hi-fives.

PS: If you are an American, please replace the word ‘Americans’ by ‘Commies’. Or should I say: s/Americans/Commies/g?

PPS: This is meant completely as a joke, inspired by their President. Most Americans I have met are very smart people, and continue to wow me.

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What would you like to Read today?

Minekey was a wonderous experience. It all started off about a year and a half back, when Delip came to IIT Kharagpur with a vision to solve the world’s information overload problem. The aim was simple — let content consumers get access to the information they are interested in.

If we look at the world today, most content producers and aggregators produce content for the general audience. That means that the news will be of all flavors, all topics and categories. However, it also means that if you wish to track news on a particular topic from a plethora of sources (and there is no dearth of them!), it is like finding a needle in a haystack, or a key in an information mine – which is incidentally where Minekey got its name from (if you couldn’t guess it already ;-).

As it goes, a handful of super charged students from IITKGP got together with Delip and Prof. Sudeshna Sarkar, and started working on this new project with a new model for incubation. The company was based in Santa Clara, and we were doing the R&D and the initial bootstrapping from Kharagpur.

Ideas flew — personalization, networking, recommendation, search, social connections, groups, communities, feedback, ranking, clustering, collaborative clustering, geo-personalization — you name it. Lots of ideas, debates, deliberations, re-iterations, progress spreadsheets, throwaway code, reusing old code, search, open source services, days and months later, we had a strategy in place. We created a news portal for the world at large (which was still an Alpha), we had strong customer leads, a model seemed to be emerging.

A lot of water has since flowed in the Ganges. There is a definite strategy, the company is well funded, there are people who have left plum jobs to work at Minekey, the business model has been refined and Minekey is staring at an immense opportunity. Kudos to the current team to take a prototype and build a real product.

Minekey has now launched recommendations for blogs! You get a sweet looking widget on your sidebar in a matter of minutes, and your friends would be able to get recommendations. Minekey monitors their clicks and as the users click from the widget, the personalization kicks in, to recommend more and more stories according to the users taste. (Sadly, WordPress doesn’t support JavaScript, otherwise you would have seen one right here. I need to work on a workaround).

Go get it now!

NY to London in 63 easy steps

This takes the cake. You want to get from NY to London, and want the fastest, easiest, cheapest way to get there. Right?

Try Google, or specifically Google Maps. Go to ‘Get Directions’ and put in ‘New York’ in the source and ‘London’ in the destination fields respectively. Viola! You get 63 easy steps to get from NY to London.

Check step 23. Can you beat that? It’s the cheapest way without any doubt.

[For those lazy to follow the very simple directions above, please click here ;-)]

Andrew Tomkins on Web Search and Online Communities

Went to another of the talks in the Big Thinkers Series by Yahoo! Bangalore. Andrew Tomkins talked about Web Search and Online communities. Andy is the Director of Search Research at Yahoo! Research.

I was very disappointed by the talk. I had expected a lot more from the person who possibly determines the future of Web Search at one of the leading Search Engines in the world. The talk started off with Andy giving a slide show of images from Flickr which rate high on interestingness. That was the good part – the pictures were cool. But thereafter he went into why Flickr was a better social network than other networks — he gave some quantifiable metrics such as the size maximal strongly connected components in the relationship graph and the number of nodes in the graph with a degree of more than a number k, which was parameterized on the X-axis. For Flickr, it seems there are a number of people with 450 friends or more while for another social networking site (a la LinkedIn/Orkut) the number is an order of magnitude smaller. I did not buy his argument that this indicates that Flickr was a more successful social network. Being able to maintain 450 friends is very difficult (ask me! I don’t even interact with many of my 800 odd friends on Orkut). Besides the nature of the two social networks was very different. He also touched upon how social networks are interacting (Upcoming and Flickr).

He then went into how the Internet is growing and the amount of data being generated. Some back of the envelopes (6B people typing away on computers for 4 hours everyday) would generate data with an upper bound of about 150 PetaBytes. However, that data is more and more decentralized. The amount of data which passes through Yahoo! network is only about 11% of the web’s data right now and that is falling fast. Nobody else even comes close (according to Andy). At the same time, one can consume only the data one wants — thanks of course to del.icio.us and RSS feeds and better personalization algorithms. That indicates that both content sources and content consumption is becoming more and more decentralized and democratized. At current rates, the storage of the amount of data being created will cost about $ 25M which should fall. Smaller players can crawl and store the content present on the web. This is great for entrepreneurers because this means that they can match the Big 3 (GOOG, MSFT, YHOO) at least in terms of storage!

Some of the latest developments in search have been special treatment of specialized domains. For instance, if you search for weather, or movies, or flight information, current generation search engines are able to figure out the domain of the search query and provide custom UI for the results based on the domain. For instance, they might give movie timings at theaters near your ZIP code. This is going to become more ubiquitous with special treatment for a lot more domains being added. However, I am not sure how many domains can be supported by a rule-based treatment for each of them. Integration of search results of different types and genres of media (images, video, text) and ranking algorithms for the combined result set remain a challenge. We are going to see the addition of more and more social features as days go by. Crawling and collecting data in the light of new programming models (like Ajax) are going to be a challenge. Andy was not aware of any good solutions to this problem.

The last part of the talk was a real disappointment. He started talking about some of his recent research on estimating properties about a hidden corpus on the basis to the answers to a number of queries. While there is no doubting that his research is worthwhile, it was perhaps a wrong forum to get into mathematical equations and that too suddenly after having talked about general technology. I got the feeling that he wanted to talk about it just to show that he still does some technical work :-).

Overall, the talk didn’t meet my expectations. The last one by Raghu Ramakrishnan was by far better.

[If I have missed out something, please point out in the comments. Thanks!]

Barcamp Bangalore 3

I attended Barcamp Bangalore 3 today, held at IIM Bangalore. I reached early and saw the place getting organized in a ad-hoc manner. Initially there was chaos, and gradually order emerged. It was very interesting to see how the whole thing got organized with just a handful of volunteers. The event was well attended, with I think an attendance of well over 300 people. Kudos to the organizers!

There were a number of interesting sessions arranged around the broad themes of Mobiles, Society, Internet and Demo/Training. I felt that the mobile room by far attracted the largest crowds. Randy Wang kicked off the society room with a talk about Digital Study Hall. Thereafter, I spent most of my time in the mobile room. some of those that I attended and liked:

  • Impact of Camera phones by Wwigo people — The key takeaway was that mobiles with cameras are becoming ubiquitous and there are interesting applications going to become prevalent. Some pointers are in the area of (1) scanning barcodes and finding more information about products, (2) Citizenship Journalism and many others. The form factor of the UI is a severe limitation. Privacy concerns abound and also to whom does the rights of a picture belong (subject or shooter). They showed a demo of their product Wwigo which lets you use your camera phone as a web cam with your PC.
  • Activ Mobs — This was by far the most exciting demo I attended. The idea is Yahoo! groups ported to mobiles. They let users create small groups (which they call mobs) using mobile phones and let people message all their friends at once with a single SMS. The utility is obvious and the product is already a hit with the target crowd (18-25) with more than 10k users and 25k SMSs sent every day. They are still trying to figure out their revenue story and find investors, but the concept is cool, and can spread like a virus. I tried it out and they have some kinks due to overloading, but hopefully the service will only get better with time.

They talked about their learning in the last 4 months that the service is up. For one, they add Activ-Tip when the message is less than 100 chars, and have found that people actually read them. That could help them monetize it by replacing the Activ Tip by an (context-sensitive) advertisement. Secondly, it is difficult to enforce a format/grammar on the users since it is difficult to remember commands and syntax. Thirdly, which is a really interesting concept — instead of providing a web-interface which is completely different from their mobile interface, they are building a command-builder UI which lets the users easy build commands on the screen and submit online (with suitalbe help/directions). This will not only help in usability, but also help the users to remember the commands.

They also described their stack – Linux, Kennel, MySQL, Ruby, and a web server.

Good luck to these guys (Akshat, Sidu and Vidit)!

  • mChek – mChek is a mobile payment solution which is currently live in Delhi. Airtel customers can pay their bills through their credit card using mChek as a gateway. It is good to see such gateways being set up since that is going to spur mobile commerce and more services being sold through mobiles. They use SMS + USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Data) to register and make payments. They claim that the USSD provides them an advantage over the other players such as Pay Mate and is also more secure (since USSD is not saved in sent items). They are certified by VISA. However, there were some issues raised about security in the light of the PIN and credit card number being sent in clear text.
  • Zook – This is a mobile search solution on both SMS and GPRS. They have tried to keep extremely structured data in their databases which the query against the users question and display results, unlike Google/Yahoo!/MSN mobile search which essentiallly try to mimic their usage of unstructured data as on the web. They currently only focus on a few categories (ringtones/wallpapers/flights/restaurants/events etc.) due to the restriction of having structured data. Another choice they have made is to prompt the user with more users in case they can not find exact solution. For instance, if you such for Pizza, they might come back to ask you if you are looking for Pizza in Bangalore? and even names of localities such as Koramangla. They feel that this interaction differentiates them from other providers. They also have the option of the users contributing to their knowledge base, but I would not buy this poing until they can demonstrate its efficacy with large number of users.
  • Socio-Net – This was about Social Networks becoming pervasive in future. Social Networks will evolve to become intelligent with personalization, intelligent minig of information, and closer integration with other applications, unlock collaboration and become drivers of many of our current applications. I feel that social networks have been in existence long before (LDAP, IM, Amazon, mailing lists) they became branded so, and what we are going to see is the defintion of Social-Networking applied to it. The reason I call Amazon a social network is because they are implicitly adding ‘friend‘-edges between people who bought the same book and doing collaborative filtering on it. There is need for more research in the area with many interesting applications possible (Mechanical Turk, Community Customer Support). There was a (rather) long discussion about entreprises having social networks so that employees spend time on their own social networks rather than external sites like Orkut. While I am all for leveraging social networks in an enterprise setting, I would not subscribe to providing a company social network like infosys.orkut.com on which employees can spend time. That is legalizing time pass :-) There can be better models.

Overall, some great ideas and it was great fun!

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What’s in a Search?

Funny are the ways of men. And even funnier are the ways of Search Engines (of course written by men).

Go to Google, type “search” in the search query box and hit “I’m feeling lucky”. (Or for simplicity, click here to see results). They certainly have a sense of humour (good or bad depends on the point of view). And since they so insist on it, repeat it on the site that comes up (or click here).

How does Windows Live fare? These guys definitely like to play safe. Just stick to string matching. That’s one way of life, definitely. Yahoo? Obviously these guys still live in the past. And it shows. Search.com obviously had to complete the vicious cycle.

What about the search engines of yore? Altavista — shows why people stopped using it. They are completely off track! Dogpile — they have pretty low self-esteem and for obvious reasons. They rank second!

Our very own home-grown Guruji, the Search Engine by Indians, of Indians and for Indians (heavy words, but then!) gave me a very intelligent “Server Busy … Please try later”. Of course, Indians have always been heavy on their cerebrum, thinking through their ages, not yet through with their thinking yet. Food for thought of course!

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