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Thursday, August 04, 2005

Rich Skrenta & Chris Tolles On Topix.Net

OJR interviews Rich Skrenta & Chris Tolles of Topix .net - in a lengthy interview , they cover the operational guidelines between Topix.net. Excerpts with edits and comments:
Topix.net slowly gained traction by providing the niche pages with links and summaries and photos from stories elsewhere and serving up Google AdSense ads that were much more relevant to the subject matter of the stories, with a constantly evolving computer algorithm that scans stories and categorizes them into the right silos. It's certainly imperfect technology, but it's perfect enough to have brought in partnerships with big names. There are no trained editors, and no advertising sales force. Rich Skrenta's relevant past experience comes from the Open Directory Project, which was set up to categorize Web pages for Netscape and later AOL was the key. That experience with tens of thousands of volunteer editors made Skrenta decide to avoid editors in this categorization project and stick to algorithms that are adjusted by the Topix team over and over again. In this case, the technology must scan 10,000-plus news sources that are constantly being updated. Plans are in the works to add in Weblogs as well.
Topix.net started off with a high-level idea of creating a Web page for every person, place or thing in the world. When you go to Google and do a search, you get 10 Web sites and they're all different. Rich skrenta explains that he had the idea that by using new ideas in the artificial intelligence community, you could actually read the entire Web and parse it and understand it and produce a regular page. So rather than have 10 different pages, you could produce a summary page about whatever you typed. Sort of a Google News per topic. Skrenta points out that Google works great on a static Web page, but it's a disaster on most news sites and blogs. But the more we were successful at that, the worse the ads got from Google. If it was a story about a fire, the ad would be for a fire extinguisher or something like that. The famous case was when the New York Times' site had a story on a suitcase of body parts that washed ashore in New Jersey, and Google was showing luggage ads beside it. Through a bunch of artificial intelligence algorithms and a big knowledgebase, which basically is reading the words in every story, Topix.net solved the problem - It's trying to figure out what the story is about, and [finding out if it's] about something relevant to a location - and it's all 100 percent automated. If news is segmented in terms of interest, in category and topic, and put ads on it from the beginning, you miss the trap of people saying here's my product, and advertising pollutes it and makes my product worse. He points out that it is a sad thing to say, 'Let me separate those things out; we'll make sure there's a Chinese Wall there between all advertising and all content. . Truly amazing. A must read for all interested.

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