TechMan: Blekko an engine for discriminating searchers

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Blekko. No, TechMan didn't swallow a bug. Blekko (blekko.com) is a new search engine that has among its founders three former classmates at Mt. Lebanon High School.

Rich Skrenta was a ninth-grader in 1982 when he decided to pull a prank on friends. He wrote a computer program called Elk Cloner on his Apple II and put it on a floppy disk that he handed out to friends. It turned out to be the first known computer virus "in the wild," that is, traveling from machine to machine.

After a career in the computer business, his latest venture is Blekko, and the name indicates that Mr. Skrenta has lost none of his mischievous sense of humor.

Among the co-founders of the company are Michael Markson and Bob Truel.

Asked whether his business partners were recipients of the virus when they were classmates, he said, "I think they had Commodores [1980s' computers that couldn't receive the virus]."

So why do we need another search engine? Especially when Ask.com, originally Ask Jeeves, quit the business last week.

The folks at Blekko think they have a better way to do search, a way that returns high-quality information and screens out the spam and junk Web sites.

Blekko uses a system of "slash tags" that you append to your search. Slashtags are curated by editors or groups of editors who pick the websites that will be associated with the tag.

For example if you were searching for information on cancer, your search would take the form cancer/health. The 50 to 100 sites searched by the health slashtag include webmd.com or mayoclinic.com.

Mr. Skrenta explains: "You really don't want to do a health search against the World Wide Web. There is tons and tons of junk out there."

During Blekko's three-month invitation-only beta, 8,000 volunteers created 3,000 slashtags. Mr. Skrenta said the plan was to emulate the Wikipedia model.

Blekko reported that in its first week in public beta, search volume averaged more than 1 million queries a day, and users created 30,000 slashtags. Blekko wants to build a volunteer army of editors to eventually identify the 50 best sites on the Web for the top 100,000 search categories.

Mr. Skrenta wants to develop Blekko to automatically know which slashtag a query falls under and apply it. Seven major slashtags already do this.

That would address one of the criticisms that have surfaced about Blekko -- that it is too complicated to do a search. Reviewers have also complained that a search would not get results from more eclectic sites.

But Mr. Skrenta believes that, as the Web fills up with more and more junk, users will be willing to make an effort to get the results they want.

Mr. Skrenta is no newcomer to starting companies. He was founder/CEO of Topix, an online news community that he sold. He also was co-founder/CEO of NewHoo, which was acquired by Netscape and renamed the Open Directory Project, the world's largest human-edited directory of the Web.

Asked how he planned to make Blekko profitable, Mr. Skrenta said: "At the moment we're focused on getting the site launched and giving users a good experience. To the extent that we develop an audience, we'll monetize that through search advertising."

About that name, Mr. Skrenta said Blekko was the name he used for one of his early servers. Call it geek nostalgia.

Security tip: Most of us know that it is important to keep our operating systems updated as a security measure. But malware also can enter through applications such as Flash Player and Acrobat Reader. Be sure to download updates for applications. Often they fix security holes.


Read TechMan's blog at post-gazette.com/techman . Watch TechTalk at post-gazette.com/multimedia or hear the audio version at post-gazette.com/podcast . Follow pgtechman on Twitter.


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