Still, we think Blekko, which just launched publicly this morning, is worth paying attention to. Yes, it will probably fail — all startups are long shots, and competing with Google and Microsoft from day one is an extreme long shot. But, Blekko doesn’t need to beat either of them, but it just has to come in third place to be big enough to matter.
That said, Blekko has one big advantage over a lot of would-be Google competitors: Google couldn’t copy its core selling point even if it wanted to.
The main differentiator of Blekko is the ‘slashtag’. Slashtags are essentially filters for search results. Core slashtags are maintained by the community, a la Wikipedia, and consist of a list of domains that are considered authoritative on issues in those categories. So if a user types, say, ‘/health’ after a search term, only results from sites considered sources of quality health content will be displayed.
The important new feature that is being announced with today’s public launch is the ‘autofiring’ of slashtags. Starting with seven key search categories — health, finance, lyrics, etc. — Blekko algorithmically detects when a search query would normally return a lot of ‘spammy’ results from within a certain category, generally from SEO farms. It then automatically applies the relevant slashtag, so that users never see spammy content to begin with.
This does seem to improve the quality — and in some cases safety — of search results in the covered areas. And, unlike most innovations in search, this isn’t something Google can simply replicate. Because the search leader is under constant regulatory scrutiny, it is constantly trying to prove that it takes no editorial stand whatsoever. Every tweak Google makes to its algorithm is met with howls of protest. If it started overtly excluding huge swathes of domains on subjective grounds, it would be swimming in lawsuits over night.
It seems clear that Blekko’s slashtags can be useful for some categories of search. Whether they can be useful more broadly, and whether the company can build up a large, active community to help it make them useful, remains to be seen. But if there’s really something here, Google may have trouble finding a way to replicate Blekko’s upside without getting itself in trouble.
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