It's All In The [Search] Packaging

needle_haystack_2.gifBack in the 1990s, searching for something on the web was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Then Google (GOOG) came along, and it was as if someone had handed us a magnet with which finding the good (and the relevant) became downright easy.

The post-bust social media boom, however, is bringing an end to the good times. The explosion of content on the Internet is making searching for information difficult once again. It is one of the reason we are seeing a sharp increase in the number of companies — vertical search engines and wiki-based collaborations, for example — that want to help us find the information for which we’re looking. This trend – lets call it smart content aggregation – is something I wrote about back in March for Business 2.0.

These companies are trying to insert themselves into the proverbial three-page paradigm that has been popularized by Google: page one is the search box; page two, the search results page; and finally, page three, the final destination that holds the coveted information. It’s the “second page” that’s getting crowded, and it’s forcing average web surfers to look for simpler options.

One option is Jason Calacanis’ Mahalo, which uses wiki-software to create specialized topic pages, aggregated by editors, that quickly point searchers to the best web resources available. (Of course, from an advertiser perspective these topics are also amongst the most sought-after “keywords”) He isn’t alone in trying to insert his company in between the searcher and the original content source; Yahoo (YHOO) has been experimenting with aggregation mashups as well.

Earlier this week, Kosmix, a Mountain View, Calif.-based startup that is taking an algorithmic approach to aggregating content, launched two beta versions of specialized topic-based pages, RightAutos and RightTrips; it also formally launched its health-focused property, RightHealth. The company builds specialized start pages on topics within topics, (such as osteoarthritis in its health section), that include everything from videos to news to special reports, all supported by advertising. Kosmix claims its beta version of RightHealth currently gets more than 2.5 million visits and generates 9 million searches a month.

Wikia, another company that is aggregating content, is now doing about 250 million page views. Wikipedia, the biggest such operation (and a not-for-profit org) had become the 9th-largest site on the web in terms of unique visitors, according to comScore.

These traffic trends reflect a desire on the part of web surfers to find information smartly aggregated for them. But those surfers still want to start with Google. Hitwise tells us that in August, 47.2 percent of Wikipedia’s traffic came from Google, up 8 percent over the same month last year. Meanwhile, Mahalo, which launched in May, saw 53.3 percent of its traffic come from Google in August, a 49-percent jump from July. For the same month-to-month timeframe, Google sent over 8.37 percent of Wikia’s traffic.

While the jury is out on the success of the aforementioned startups, the need for smart aggregators is only going to increase as more content starts to come online. As I wrote in the March issue of Business 2.0:

Hyperaggregation is simply a way to do in the new-media world what old media has done for centuries: neatly package information. The value of a newspaper, after all, is not the information inside as much as the carefully considered layout of the front page. At a glance you can see what’s important. Smart new companies are finally figuring out how to do this online, where there’s too much content and not enough packaging.

The aggregation is going to pose a challenge for some of the traditional content sources. A lack of finely tuned information sources is one of the reasons content publishers get “wasted” clicks. The aggregators can take away some of that sloth by making seek-and-search more efficient. Wikipedia’s pages, for example, are incredibly detailed and often include enough information that obviate the need to search any further. That should be a scarier prospect than Google adding news wires to Google News and subsequently taking a bite out of newspapers’ online traffic.

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