Q&A With Stephen Baker, CEO Of Reed Business Search
Reed Elsevier is one of the largest, most influential publishers in the world, a powerhouse in the science and medical, legal, education and business markets. But the company also has a major online presence, with more than 1,000 web sites in just its business group.
Last year, Reed Business decided to leverage this significant online presence by creating Zibb, a business-to-business search engine that allows users to search across all of Reed Business’ web sites. But Zibb goes beyond that—Reed also indexes billions of other business-related URLs from all over the web, including competitor web sites.
The result is a very powerful B2B search engine that often returns much better results for business-related queries than mainstream search engines.
Reed Business also decided to integrate this technology into the site search tools for its web sites, which range from the Asia Food Journal to entertainment bellwether Variety. Using search technology from FAST, Zibb on Demand allows each of these sites to offer their own content and the best of the web that’s related to the site’s specialty.
To oversee these efforts, Reed Business hired Stephen Baker to be CEO of Reed Business Search. Stephen is a long-time industry veteran, having put in stints with FAST during its AlltheWeb days, on to Overture and Yahoo, and then back to FAST as general manager of enterprise search. So he’s the ideal person to drive a search group that covers a vast vertical slice of the web, as well as content from a huge global enterprise.
I caught up with Stephen this week to find out what’s new with Zibb and talk about the opportunities he sees going forward in B2B search.
Q: The companies that measure traffic say that Google continues to take market share. Why decide now to start a specialized B2B search service? And why the name Zibb?
Why Zibb? It’s the name of one of Reed Business’ leading publications in the Netherlands. We were looking for a name that is memorable and avoids language-boundaries, which Zibb does. Also, brand names that begin with “z” are more memorable and it has the “BB” in it which could lead to some fun branding and logo design.
While Google is taking market share, we believe that there is a segment of the B2B market that is not 100% satisfied with the results they get from a “general” SE. Specifically, Outsell reports that approximately 1/3 of B2B professionals do not find the information they are looking for when using Google. Our research confirms this.
Furthermore, when you look at the amount of time that professionals spend searching, gathering, and analyzing information, you see that a lot of time is wasted “searching” for information. Between 2001 and 2005, the number of hours spent on information-related tasks increased from 8/week to 13/week and the percentage of time spent “searching” for information increases from 45% to 55%. All of these factors combined indicate that a) search is very important in the daily life of a B2B professional and b) they are not always finding what they are looking for at Google. We feel that this need can be best addressed through a B2B vertical search service.
Q: Do you think all this wasted time and effort is a reflection on the skills of searchers?
Yes and No. Certainly, based on our research, utilization of advanced search features on the major engines is low so when searchers are looking for B2B content, they are often confronted with noise in the results that could be eliminated, to a degree, through advanced search functions. However, this behavior points to the underlying expectation that advanced search features shouldn’t be required to find relevant results. So, with Zibb (and other vertical SE’s), we are basically trying to give the searcher what they want: the “right” answer within a narrower context.
Q: Do you plan to add advanced search or query refinement tools to maybe help people zero-in even more on their target?
Since we’re really focused on improving search productivity and it is our top priority is to provide relevant results with the search and browse paradigm that characterizes Zibb, currently. However, we have a tremendous amount of enriched data describing the content that we aggregate that naturally lends itself to advanced features for the power searcher. So “yes”, over time, we will bring some of that meta data to the forefront of the user experience.
Q: You’re using FAST technology to crawl the web, but also massaging the data you get. You’re crawling 4-5 billion documents every couple of months -What kinds of things are you doing to winnow out non B2B content from search results? And if you’ve got one big index, how and why do search results differ on Variety vs. a site like Flight International?
We are using a series of heuristics to identify relevant B2B content. These range from editorial processes – we have some of the best subject matter experts in house and they continually help us find sites and content that are relevant to their sector – to offline analysis of link structures and anchor texts to identify relevant sites during index build. Of course, we are using an adaptive framework to train the crawler to get smatter with each crawl iteration.
Once we have discarded the non-B2B content, we categorize the content into one of 26 industry taxonomies and describe the content as being a news article, supplier listing, etc. The API’s for the Reed Business Search platform allow for individual websites to specify the query recall set at the industry, sub-industry, or content type level. Hence, Variety can consume only media-related search results while Flight International consumes aerospace results.
Q: Why is Reed Business including content from competitors in Zibb search results?
The goal of Zibb is to provide a search utility for the B2B market. In order to truly provide a valuable service, we believe that Zibb must be a) contextually relevant to the B2B sector and b) comprehensive across all relevant content sources.
Q: I would think some of your competitors wouldn’t want to be part of this—do you have any opting out, or putting other requirements on you to allow you to use their content?
Yes, we occasionally get calls from competitors asking why we are crawling their site so regularly and thoroughly. Some have even blocked our crawlers, however, once they learn that Zibb is focused on becoming a B2B search destination focused on all relevant content, not just Reed Business content, and that our ranking algorithm is unbiased towards Reed Business content, they are usually happy to participate.
Q: How about some stats? How many companies indexed? How many topics, geographic entities and so on?
Currently, we track 17K public companies serving B2B markets, and about 23% of those have strong coverage in our indices. “Coverage,” for our purposes, is a measure of web presence of a particular entity.
Down deep in the tail, we track 1.8M companies also serving B2B professionals, though often in a local or brick and mortar fashion and we’ve found that their online coverage is much weaker with only about 3% passing our “Strong coverage” threshold. Bear in mind that we still track and recognize all of these companies against our full index, we just recognize that many are not well represented online.
Our product categories have 46% strong coverage for the 181K we track, and our topics have 70% strong coverage for the over 2K that we have publicly released to date.
What we’ll see happening over time is that we’ll grow our universe of public and private companies tracked and simultaneously we’ll continue to seek additional web sources of information to strengthen the coverage. This same strategy will be methodically applied to product categories and topics. With our human and machine power we feel that we have a sustainable, scalable, ever-improving approach that will expand even faster as we build within the B2B community who in turn will start helping to shape our growth.
Q: Do B2B searchers differ in how they search from people doing more general searches on Google & Yahoo?
We’re finding that search behavior is relatively consistent. People have the same information needs in B2B as the do in B2C: Read the news and get updates on products, services and companies; perform research functions; look for places to buy things. Of course, search behavior within each of these activities varies (for example, people prefer to browse for news “tell me what’s new” and employ geographic/parametric search for vendors “I’m looking for a company that makes ball bearings in NJ.”) But, in terms of the number of terms per query or the specificity that is employed when looking for eg, product information, there isn’t too much variation.
Q: I would think B2B searchers might tend to have more long tail queries—more specific in expressing what they’re looking for. Have you seen that?
Yes, this is absolutely the case. By nature, B2B trade media is really about having deep subject matter expertise. This is reflected in our content and the needs of our search customers. A portion of the queries that we see are for specific products, parts, and company names which tend to be long-tail queries.
Q: How does Zibb differ from Zibb On Demand?
The Reed Business Search team has built two products. The first is a branded B2B search destination, called Zibb. It is located at www.zibb.com and its Dutch counterpart is located at www.zibbsearch.nl. Zibb on Demand is the hosted vertical search service that we provide to our sites, partners, and affiliates. Zibb on Demand has all of the same features as Zibb and allows the customer to specify the industry and type of content they want included in the results. You can see a couple of examples: Variety.com uses Zibb on Demand to power search across the site, media news search, and media web search. Expert Business Source does the same for small business information.
Q: Customized verticals have been gaining a lot of popularity recently—Google custom search, Eurekster’s Swikis, Rollyo and others. Any plans to create APIs and let users create their own customized B2B vertical search using the Zibb index?
Absolutely. Right now we are focused on building a search platform that meets the immediate needs of our brands, businesses, and partners, however, personalization and custom verticals are features that the Reed Business Search platform support and their deployment will be prioritized as the business needs dictate.
Q: What opportunities do you offer for advertisers who want to reach B2B searchers?
Right now we are using Google AdSense for Search. Later this year, we will offer additional advertising products.
Q: Any tips on optimizing content for sites that want to rank well in Zibb?
We’re looking for unique, targeted, well described content for the B2B sector. You can see the vertical industries that we are targeting on the Zibb.com homepage. If you are writing content targeted to the B2B audience, keep the industry sector in mind and choose relevant phrases. We’re also very good about looking for new content via site maps, RSS, and other natural web protocols. Other than that, if you’re site is well optimized for Google, Yahoo!, MSN, etc., then you’ll do fine in Zibb. And, of course, we have editors on the back-end making sure that our spam detection and categorization algorithms are performing well.
Q: What kind of traffic are you getting? What kind of growth? What growth are you projecting/expecting over the next 1-3-5 years?
So far, both growth of Zibb.com and adoption of Zibb on Demand have been strong. Traffic is growing in excess of 50% month-over-month and Zibb on Demand is currently live on about 30 sites with many, many more scheduled to deploy this year. Looking out beyond 2007 is anyone’s guess. We certainly see a market opportunity for providing a unique B2B search experience and hope that we have a meaningful position in the market beyond 2007.