RealTime IT News

Spock, Peek Step Into Search Madness

How often do you need help finding someone? Perhaps more often than you realize.

Online directories, search engines and other resources you can use to find people on the Web are hardly new. But many of these don't do a great job because they either aren't tuned to a specific people-finder function or they're hard to use or the information is out-of-date.

A new generation of search services is emerging, designed to help users find friends, colleagues and long-lost relatives. And all it took was a little bit of money.

Spock.com, which recently came out of private to public beta, creates a snapshot of a person's presence from public sources on the Web. The information includes a biographical summary, pictures and related content found from publicly available online sources. It also allows registered users to add content to enrich their profiles and those of others.

"All of us search for people every day," said Jaideep Singh, cofounder and CEO of Spock.com. "It could be in an address book, Outlook, someone in your class at school or a colleague you need to get in touch with. An average person does a people search 10 times a day; it's the largest application in the world, but the tools for doing it are highly fragmented."

Singh said the idea for Spock came to him in his former career as a venture capitalist. He wanted to tap his contact list to find a vice president of engineering for one of his companies.

"I had 3,000 contacts in Outlook and probably a hundred or so in there that would qualify," he said. But there was no good way to quickly sort out precisely who I needed."

Spock provides city and state location, as well as photos and links to other relevant sources about a person that he or she has posted on the Web.

Spock includes a top 10 list of people (mainly celebrities and politicians) on the homepage that users can click for the latest news about them. Singh said the list changes based on the popularity of who is being searched. But at this early stage, it didn't appear to change over a 24-hour period, with Carmen Electra firmly in place at No. 9 and the relatively unknown (by Carmen Electra standards) Edward Tufte, at No. 10. There is also a list of people in the news and most popular searches.

PeekYou.com, which launched its beta site last month, is focused squarely on the people search application. Company founder and CEO Michael Hussey said he could have added content from Wikipedia, MySpace and elsewhere but sees greater benefit in continuing to enhance his site's ability to connect people to other's they want to reach.

The site has added a number of enhancements, including a tagging feature that lets you personalize descriptions for easier retrieval.

Hussey has broad experience in developing people-oriented Web services, having created RateMyFace and the RateMyTeachers.com/RateMyProfessors.com Web sites (RateMyProfessors.com was recently purchased by MTV).

Like Singh, Hussey said the idea for his service was born out of frustration. For one thing, he happens to share the same name as one of the world's most famous cricket players, muddling his own Web presence. He also recalls how an interview with a journalist almost went badly awry. A distant relative of Hussey's, with the same name, was on a criminal Most Wanted list. "Is this you?" Hussey recalls the journalist exclaiming with concern. Score one for fact-checking.

Both Spock and PeekYou are free, ad-supported services. Singh touts his company's investment in R&D and resources, noting Spock.com has seven PhDs on its staff of 30 and 400 servers split between its own datacenter and Amazon's EC2 scalable computing service.

Hussey concedes PeekYou, with over 50 million user profiles, has spent only "a fraction" of what Spock.com has, but makes no apologies. "I'd rather bootstrap than spend millions on a concept," he said. "All of these services have a long way to go."

On that last point, Singh agrees. "We're trying to solve a very difficult problem and we've only scraped the tip of the iceberg." He said Spock.com has indexed about 100 million people to date. "Our mission is to index everyone."