Sunday, April 15, 2012

What Happened to SearchKing?

The Big Idea

The big idea actually had nothing to do with building a network of niche portals at first.

In the summer of 1997, I hung out a lot at the Warriors forums. Kind of the SEW of it's day, complete with it's own Googleguy of sorts. Only back then Infoseek was king.

Anyway, someone posted that they had been busted by Infoseek but that no one from the company would answer their emails and they wondered what they could do. Looked upon as a kind of resident SEO expert within the community, I replied that it may be easier to just get another domain and start over rather than begging for a response from a company notorious for their lack of responses. Well, some IS employee with an email address of spamassasin, emailed me that Infoseek did not like people recommending multiple domains to one person so they wiped out the placements of my domain and every client we had. You know how they knew who my clients were? Because like the naive, peace and love, ex-hippy I was, I listed all my clients right on my main website with contact details and urls as references.

I have always had a real problem with authority and my perception of the abuse of authority really gets me motivated. Motivated to get me suspended from school. Motivated to leave home at an early age. Motivated to sue huge tech companies and basically motivated to take a bad situation and usually make it much worse. I admit to being guilty of being bull-headed, tenacious, unwilling to listen and unshakeable in my convictions once filled with righteous indignation.

So, here was a company who had just tried and convicted me because I answered a question in an effort to assist someone who Infoseek could have answered themselves and the question would have never been asked in the first place. This company whose vice president at the time was dominating the 6 o'clock news for being arrested while trying to hook up with a 13 year old girl he had seduced in an internet chat room, and had now passed judgment on me without any semblance of due process. I was motivated.

Furthermore, this was a company that was putting fast meta refreshes to the top within 30 minutes of submitting. Their answer to fighting this problem was to disable the auto submit on weekends. I thought it was a poor excuse for a real search engine compared to Alta Vista, Excite, Lycos and HotBot and I didn't feel they would have ever gotten as big as fast as they did had it not been for SEO's talking them up. I thought I could do better with my limited tech knowledge and even more limited revenue stream. In hindsight, that was my first mistake.

The idea was simply to put more focus on human review. To me, Infoseek and the others main objective was to eliminate the expense of human involvement. To try to automate algorithmically, the process of cataloging huge volumes of data. I could see the profit potential in trying to get one machine to do the work of a lot of people, but I could also see the reality was far from actually doing it.

I wanted a way to do get Yahoo quality without the expense, (which I felt I couldn't afford at the time), of a staff of hundreds of editors. A way to use human intellect and opinion on an individual basis to improve relevancy and use the computer programs only to make the process scalable. Still motivated, I set out to find the people that could help me build it.

After a couple of feeble attempts with a few internet notables such as Dave Kelly and Jude Lacour,( before they became internet marketing icons), I wised up a little and sit down and actually drafted a business plan complete with objectives, strategies, cash flow studies and basic software design. I found a local company desperately wanting to get their development company off the ground and met a very smart young man who, using my basic design documents, put together a real one. I was impressed, made the deal and SearchKing was born.

To my knowledge, SearchKing was the first search engine to ever effectively use searcher responses in the form of votes as the backbone of a working algorithm. We had instant indexing. We allowed you to instantly edit your own titles and descriptions. We had a pretty sophisticated adult word filter that actually worked back in 98 and we had a philosophy born out of those Search Engine Forum discussions that Kira mentioned. We had no system for penalizing anything. We took the approach that we were not trying to penalize and filter out the bad stuff, rather we were focused on trying to reward and include the good stuff. A concept that I believe has merit even today.

I was now about $30,000 in the hole and a monthly cost of about $1500 to keep it maintained. We were plagued by Microsoft/Linux compatibility problems from starting out on a MS box and being limited by the features offered then starting to use the open source magic of Linux. Microsoft never has liked that much. I began learning about things like DNS, IP addresses, routers, networked servers, oh yeah and let's not forget about that, "show up unexpectedly and never leave while eating you out of house and home" buddy, ---- bandwidth.

Still, I saw the whole thing as a success. I actually had built something pretty neat and I was proud.

The idea for a network of portals came from the fact that after about 18 months we realized that people don't go to search engines to work harder. The purpose of a search engine is to SERVE a human searcher, not to expect that searcher to SERVE the search engine. This is why there are no well known voting search engines right now. There are plenty of "rate this site" buttons on small engines the world over, including the free SK portals, but so few people take the time to do the voting that it shoots scalability and predictability right out the window.

That's when we decided that expecting a few people to rate everything was not going to work. A better approach would be to provide the tools to people who wanted to review a lot of data that pertained to a specific subject and form a centralized location to direct the search traffic to a keyword specific "portal" as opposed to a website. In the beginning, our focus was on local portals. I think we even called the first offering Hometown portals or something like that. At the time, using a search engine to get a pizza delivered was still just a glimmer in the eye of a few tech start ups like City Search. Turns out it is much harder than it sounds.

By this time, my relationship with the people who had built the first SK engine was becoming strained. They had way underbid the deal from the beginning and it was becoming increasingly obvious with each passing day. I pitched my idea of making the SK software available as a shared program but they were able to convince me that it could not work. They were right as it turns out. Enter Hyperseek.

Not long afterward, we changed our company slogan to SearchKing is the foundation and traffic generating center of the world's largest network of independent niche directories.

I will stop here as I prepare the next post. Please bear with me as it is going to take me some time. In the meantime, I believe every article I wrote going into great detail just what the plan was, is archived in the portal partner It may not be responding properly as I am still in server hell, but it is there.

The Money

In '97 and '98 the tech stock boom was just getting really hot. Anyone recall Webvan? The 200 million dollar venture capital deals were really throwing a monkey wrench in the conventional wisdom of evaluating start ups. Still, the internet was basically a small town in the old west that just had a railroad line go through it. I can't imagine the California gold rush of 1849 coming close to rivaling the rush to Silicon Valley. It seemed everyone was ready to make a deal.

I'm sure that environment had more than a little to do with my cost estimates being in the hundreds of thousands to get the search engine built. I realized even though I was being quoted prices in that range, that estimates rarely come in UNDER budget. I knew from the very beginning that what I was proposing would take more than a year and cost close to a million dollars. The problem was, I didn't have a million dollars.

I also knew that venture capital was a definite probably not for me. I don't have a college degree and if I were going to invest in a company, I would expect more formal education than I could offer. I knew from the beginning that whatever it cost, I didn't have it, no one was going to give it to me and if I needed money, I would have to MAKE it.

In 1995, at the age of 41, I owned a printing shop specializing in business cards ready in an hour. I sold a lot of business cards. So many in fact that I soon found myself putting in more and more 14 hour days. I lived on coffee, cigarettes and fast food and as any sane person could expect, I had multiple heart attacks that summer. I lost just about everything and fell into a deep depression. The internet saved my life, and still, as much as I hate computers, I dearly love the internet and the promise it offers to all.

I never had any idea I would have a knack for thinking like a search engine and be able to understand what makes one document addressing the same question get put on top of another. Turns out I did. By the end of '97 I had actually rebuilt a life based on placing websites in the top of the results of Infoseek mainly, (I can actually kind of understand why they didn't like me much), under terms that made my clients money. Boy, was it easy pickins back then. Swear to goodness, in early '97 I don't think there were more than about 200 people in the world doing SEO. It wasn't even called that back then. Can you imagine. All that greed and desire divided up between only 200 people. Ahhh, those were the days my friend.

So, by March of '98 I planned on supporting SearchKing with the money I generated from, the search engine placement service. More than a little ironic I know. That's what I did and that is part of why I'm in such dire straits today, technically speaking. I've always had to keep my eye on expenses rather than expansion. That is not the optimal situation for a business wanting to grow. Typical, just not optimal.

I have never had the luxury of being in a position to hire the best people for the job. I have been more inclined to hire the people willing to do the job for what I could afford to pay. I could very likely hold the world's record for getting the most benefit from employees for the least salary than anyone in history. I have had some really exceptional people do some incredible things for much less than they deserved.

That said, to date, I have spent a little over 1.2 million on building and maintaining SearchKing. Both as a search engine and as a portal network. I have had to adjust my projections almost quarterly since the beginning and I would say realistically, it is going to take another 5 million minimum to actually complete the "plan".

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