Rich Skrenta – Local Search Interview

In this interview we’re talking to Rich Skrenta.

Hi Rich thanks for taking the time to talk to me today, could you tell us a little bit about yourself for my readers who may not know you?

I started my career as a programmer working at a spin-off of AT&T that invented the Unix operating system. Later I worked on network security and encryption products at Sun Microsystems. On the side, I developed the NewHoo directory with some friends and we sold it to Netscape six months after it launch. Netscape renamed it the Open Directory, and I had a lot of great experiences at Netscape, running engineering for their search engine, working on AOL Music, and working on their price-comparison search engine for AOL members. In 2002 the group of us left and set up shop as Topix. We’re now 80% owned by the top three newspaper companies in the US, and have been growing steadily, to 1M pageviews/day and about 9M server uniques/month.

For a moment let’s pretend you aren’t involved in web publishing at all, what type of searches do you find yourself performing?

I search for people’s names quite a bit, trying to pull up interesting background on people I am meeting with or am curious about. I do a fair bit of research around programming technology, so I’ll be looking for research reports coming out of academia related to new algorithms and such. I’ve been surprised over the past year or so how many kinds of searches that I used to do on specialty search engines I now just use Google for. Google has become everyone’s site search.

Let’s shift the focus over to Topix.net, on your site you give local news for places all over the world, what have have been some of the more interesting and surprising things you found that people are looking for on a regular basis?

Our top search is ‘obituaries’, which reflects the deep local audience we have. We added a community forum for every town in the US and subject on our site (300,000 total forums) a year ago and the traffic has been growing like mad. The recent graphs actually look exponential. Scaling the community is a challenge since if the quality of the discussion goes down, the growth stalls. We have an entire team of full-time moderators to police the forums.

What are some of more difficult problems you’ve found dealing with local topics that you didn’t expect.

We get multiple subpoenas each week from law enforcement agencies related to things being said in our forums. People go online and make threats, or confess to things, and it turns out that the police are pretty savvy about monitoring online discussion, and following up when something catches their eye. This is old hat for big sites like Yahoo and AOL that have been running community for years, but the number and variety of these events as our traffic grew was surprising to us.

On you personal blog I noticed you mentioned a narcissism filter at topix.net, which I found kind of funny. If I’m a local organization and we’re running a car show, street fair, or charity event what are some tips to make sure Topix finds us without trying to take advantage of the system?

Having the location of the event in there in a way that can be recognized by our localization technology is key. It doesn’t have to be a full address, but should include the city and state minimally. Most genuinely newsy releases aren’t going to trip up any of our aggressive content filters in all likelihood; I assume that a charity announcement isn’t going to be full of hate speech. We like to index event and commercial announcements at the local level, since that’s a core part of what a local newspaper delivers. The filters are mostly there to keep out the really offensive stuff.

So what are the coolest features on Topix that no one is using, and have you got any plans for 2007 you can tell us about?

We’ve got a great blog search engine. It tends to index new posts fairly quickly, goes back to a full year of index, and has no spam since every blog in our crawl is editorially reviewed.

We also have a nifty feature where you can do case-sensitive searches against the news. So you can search for “IT” and get back stuff about the IT industry, without seeing occurrences of ‘it’. You can search for bush –Bush and get back hits for shrubbery without the political stories.

As for what’s coming up, we’re going to be reorienting our entire site to focus on community participation soon. Engaging local users with the news and with each other is where we’re see the most growth.

Let’s take out a Crystal ball and look into the future, what do you see in the next 2-3 years for local search

There are a lot of great initiatives by startups as well as the majors in the works. I expect location-aware searching to make big progress over the next few years. Local advertisers have been slow to move to the web, but they reprepresent $100B of advertising dollars in the US alone. They can’t reach big parts of their audience through the newspaper or local TV or coupon mailers anymore. They’re going to have to go online to connect with 20-somethings locally. You see a couple of segments in the search engines now, like real estate agents, but I expect once the technology catches up to let us effectively do local searches to see a big advertiser movement here online. There are 500,000 advertisers in adwords now, but there are 12 million local US businesses. That’s a lot of ad dollars that have yet to come online. We’re not done with growth here by a long shot.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today Rich. if you’re looking to explore local news be sure to head on over to Topix.net and I also want to recommend subscribing to Rich’s blog, lots of good interesting stuff getting discussed there.

Tags: local+search, , Rich+Skrenta

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