Edited transcript of BriefingsDirect[TM] podcast on Business Webs and search with host Dana Gardner, recorded Jan. 9, 2007.
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Dana Gardner: Hi, this is Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, and you're listening to BriefingsDirect. Today, a sponsored podcast discussion on the burgeoning "Business Web," the concept around how companies and commerce-focused organizations can discover one another and create partnerships, relationships, and alliances.
In doing so, they can exploit and leverage the search technologies around the Semantic Web and around the new opportunity for discovery of assets, resources and tacit knowledge. Joining us to discuss this is a representative from Zoom Information Inc., Russ Glass. He is the vice president of product and marketing at ZoomInfo. Welcome to the show, Russ.
Russ Glass: Thanks for having me.
Gardner: Also joining is John Blossom, president of Shore Communications and a noted analyst covering these topics. Thanks for joining us, John.
John Blossom: Thank you, Dana.
Gardner: Search has been around for a number of years. It’s been used for many -- I suppose you could say -- pedestrian purposes, and has increasingly been focused on business. But business relationships and finding partners is as old as business itself. Finding the right partners can make or break an activity, a go-to-market, an innovation, and any new process that’s brought to the market.
Now, we’re starting to bring these things together, perhaps a "Reese’s Cup" moment -- chocolate and peanut butter, if you will -- a whole greater than the sum of the parts. This seems to be particularly relevant now because we’re entering this Web 3.0 era, where semantic information is more readily available, and context scales massively, but also scales down to the long-tail or micro niches.
So, we want to talk about the need for aggregation, the fact that there is just a tremendous amount of information, even an overload, given what search is capable of. We also want to explore how this new semantic opportunity and how business relationships and the Business Web can be brought to bear on overload and discovery.
I want to start with you, John. Could you help us understand just how large this ocean is that we’re roiling about in with search. What is the need for aggregation, context, or pertinence when it comes to this huge trove of disparate business information that it is now available through the Web?
Blossom: Sure thing, Dana. The Internet as everybody knows is a growing database of information, accessible globally. We used to measure things in megabytes and gigabytes, then terabytes, then petabytes and exabytes. Basically, we just keep on putting the zeroes behind the ones, and we have untold quantities of information that are being produced every day around the world and are being published on the open Web.
What’s happening in today’s environment though is that businesses are getting much more intelligent about how they use the Web to present themselves as not just companies with shareware sites, but as publishers that provide in-depth information about their activities.
At the same time, individuals in business are learning how to expose themselves through that instrument also. Why did they bother? Well, our research shows that most people in business start on the open Web when they’re trying to solve a business problem and find business information, as opposed to going to internal subscription services. Certainly, subscription content is still a very important part of the equation, but many people, knowing that companies are out there publishing information on the Web, are going out to search engines to find the answers to their business questions.
So, search engines have become a natural first point for not just Googling individuals to find general information or haphazard information, but to solve real, specific business and sales problems in the process. In today’s environment, with so much information being published by individuals and institutions, search engines don’t necessarily provide the level of filtering that the average businessperson needs to be able to do solve problems effectively.
Gardner: All right, let’s move to Russ. Russ, it's a given that search is become a front-end for more and more business activities. When we’re thinking about exploring new opportunities in different markets, partnerships -- and given that more and more companies are in fact partnering and aligning themselves -- what can be brought to this opportunity and how can we then at the same time solve this overload issue?
Glass: When John talked about how much information is on the Web and how fast it’s growing, he nailed it right on the head. John Battelle calls it the "Database of Intentions." where the Web is now this huge repository for what companies are doing, what partnerships they’re signing up, who works within different companies, what industries they’ve worked in in the past, where they went to school, etc. If there was a way to tie all that together in an efficient manner and with a search interface that made sense for the business user, there’s tremendous value to get out of it.
At ZoomInfo, we’ve got a product called PowerSearch, which is essentially the front-end interface that’s targeted to the business user to be able to pull out these intentions: who’s working with whom, what are they trying to accomplish, how can I discover markets to use in my day to day business life?
Gardner: So, it really isn’t just about businesses. It’s about individuals, because businesses are composed of people. I might be dating myself here, but there was this time when your Rolodex was your standard. How good your Rolodex was indicated how good you were at partnerships and relationships and what your past business history was. That’s now given away to the Web, but again we hit overload. What’s being done technically to align business user needs with some an automated approach? In a general sense, are we talking about crawling, and is it traditional, or do we have to go a step further technically in order to accomplish this notion of a Business Web?
Glass: We need to go a step further. Obviously, crawling is a starting point for all search engines. You have to have a mechanism to get out there and actually find the information, but it’s not just enough to say, “Oh, these keywords exists out there.” For example, my name, Russell Glass, is actually two keywords in the eyes of the search engine, when Russell Glass is really an entity. I’m a person. You have to take that level of understanding beyond just crawling, to be able to say that I’m a person, I have certain attachments, I belong to certain organizations, I’ve worked for certain companies.
I have all these characteristics when you really get to semantics, the Semantic Web side of this. I have all this metadata, if you want to call it that, from a technical standpoint, which defines who I am. The next step for search is really to understand that metadata and use that to create a more useful and filtered experience for a business user. For example, if I am looking for people within a certain industry -- let’s say the healthcare industry -- I need to be able to tell that search engine that the results I want are people, and those people have to work within the healthcare industry. That search engine has to be a lot smarter than just bringing back certain keywords that are found out there on the Web.
Blossom: That’s a key point, and what you’re pointing out from my perspective, Russ, is that for many years people were talking about the Semantic Web and the need for metadata, so people will be able to do these kinds of searches. But the Web is not self-organizing in the way that it’s published. The information is out there and it can be extracted, but people are not publishing content with that structure in mind.
The technologies that are becoming more prevalent in this era, and that sometimes get bucketed into the label "Web 3.0," are about being able to extract that semantic structure from content that’s been published without semantics in mind. They provide the hooks that will allow specialized searches to go out there and provide semantic structure across a wide range of information, regardless of how it was initially published.
Gardner: John, let’s take a step back for a moment, and for our listeners benefit, give them a timeline of Web 1, Web 2 and Web 3. I’ll start with a very broad overview. Web1 was HTML content, pretty straightforward and basically a push, it was just, "Here’s a brochure" type of affair.
Web 2.0 is characterized a lot by relationships and user content discussion, give and take, bringing this more to the level of a village, but with massive scale but also massive niche or long-tail opportunity.
Help us explain now this next progression to Web 3.0, what do you mean by "semantic" and "Web," and what sort of tools can be brought in this newer era to align business interests and cut to the wheat and get rid of the chaff.
Blossom: It’s always dangerous to use labels like Web 3.0, especially when it’s so vague and undefined that Wikipedia has locked down the page for Web 3.0, and won’t even allow people to make an entry on it. What I think we can say safely is that everything old is becoming new again, through the advancement of technology on the Web. If you think of pre-Web information services, they were oriented around databases. Those databases were highly structured and you had indexes and needed specific words to be able to organize records in that database.
Gardner: You practically had to be a developer to know how to approach the database to get basic information?
Blossom: Absolutely. If you look at some of the interfaces that were available in early information products, such as Dialog and other databases of that sort, with a virtual programming language unto itself just to do a simple query. Then, along comes the Web, and what's now termed Web 2.0, and people said, “Well, let’s just not worry about structure too much, let’s put the information out there." There is enough intelligence in search engines for us to be able to find stuff that’s been pushed out there on the Web.
It was a huge step forward, when the search engines provided the ability for information to be aggregated in new ways without the structure of a database, but on a rather ad-hoc basis. Sometimes it was guided by popularity and sometimes by semantic structure, but whatever the combination, information was more easily aggregated from any number of sources regardless, of its structure.
Web 2.0 is probably best described as the read/write Web, where there is an increasing proportion of content that’s being pushed out by individuals as opposed to institutions. We have a broader mix of sources and a broader mix of information going out from a range of publishers. It has some default structure in it because of the standards that are being applied, but it’s still fairly loose information.
Gardner: At least those individuals are not only contributing content, but they also, in a sense, contribute ranking opportunity by voting with their attention, with their activity, and with their links, which information is relevant, and this helps codify into some categorization.
Blossom: Exactly, and the ability for people to be able to build up webs of links, to be able to indicate what’s important, provides a level of importance to semantics. That begins to highlight information more effectively to people, when they’re trying to figure out what’s relevant in a trendy topic.
Gardner: If it works for finding people who are interested in your baseball collection, your baseball card collection, then it might also help in putting together your business community or ecology as well.
Blossom: Absolutely. Business publications and corporations are all beginning to latch onto this idea and to use Web 2.0-style publishing to be able to reach people. We have individuals out there in business with Weblogs. We have CEO’s with Weblogs. We have PR departments with Weblogs. Everybody is pushing out and trying to engage the world in a conversation. Now, with all that information out there, the question is how we structure it. What we’re beginning to see in the Web environment is the use of more sophisticated content extraction technologies and analytics to be able to take those relationships and to present them more effectively to information systems.
So, to bring it back to what I was saying originally, we’ve gone back to trying to provide structure in our information, but with a much more sophisticated publishing environment than people used to have in standalone databases. Now, in effect, the entire Web has become a database because of the ability to structure information on the fly.
Gardner: Okay, so the best of the old and the best of the new. Russ, you’re in the position now of creating product and then bringing that product to market at ZoomInfo. What is it about this next step of the best of the old and the new that is exciting to you as a search product developer?
Glass: John made a key point -- when he was talking about how Web 2.0 was driven by the individual -- moving from totally unstructured information to a world where now users can start to give feedback. Businesses have started to follow the individuals' lead to Web 2.0, but they have then taken the next step because all that information is useful to a business only if it’s structured and if it can be efficiently incorporated into the business environment.
Businesses are really leading the drive toward these "Web 3.0" technologies, moving from unstructured to structured information. As a product guy in this space, that’s what excites me, because I think that companies like ZoomInfo, which are focused on semantic technologies, are going to find the most success in the business world in the short term, because the ROI is there. Businesses can make tremendous amounts of money in both the cost side and the top line by aggregating this information and using it effectively.
Gardner: It seems to me that this notion of a Business Web isn't really, "Let’s build it, and see who’ll come." This is really business responding to an opportunity, recognizing that they have need of finding an audience, of finding channels, of finding partnership, extending into new markets -- globalization. Help me understand the chicken and the egg here when it comes to the Business Web?
Glass: Sure. I don’t think we’re creating the Business Web. I think the Business Web’s already out there. It’s out there in the form of Websites and press releases and SEC filings and blogs and anything else with business content. What we’re doing is taking technology and making all of that information accessible in an efficient way. That’s really the next step, because as we’ve talked about already, there’s just too much information out there to absorb. It’s in too many different repositories, in too many different formats.
When we have something that can tie it all together in a way that makes sense to a business user who can then use it to define markets and find people within those markets and do competitive research on different companies within those markets, etc., that’s where the real value is going to be extracted from the Business Web.
Blossom: It's interesting that the sorts of problems that businesses are trying to solve on the open Web are very similar to the problems that they’re also trying to solve behind the firewall and their intranets and extranets. Even inside corporations, they have created many repositories of different types of information. Being able to unify that effectively with analytics-driven aggregation systems is key for their internal operations. Increasingly, businesses are seeing the open Web as an extension of their business operations. It’s just the matter of which IP routers are you going through to be able to extract business intelligence.
Gardner: Perhaps we have dual track here. On one hand, we’ve got progression toward the Semantic Web, but at the same time inside the firewall, as you point out, we’ve got a long-term progression toward the semantic enterprise. We’ve been using warehousing and mining business intelligence, and a number of other trends over the past 10 or 15 years.
Help me understand, John, how these come together. What is this "whole greater than the sum of the parts," when we apply the semantic enterprise to the Semantic Web?
Blossom: It’s the same problem solved in a different environment, although there are more structured databases inside your typical corporation. With the proliferation of departmental Web servers and Web 2.0 applications within the corporate environment, there’s not a lot of homogeneity in their internal information. When the corporations look out to the external Web, they are more open to the idea of this being a resource that they can use for business purposes, not just because of the tools that are out there, but because they understand this is the same sort of problem that they have had to solve internally.
There’s a greater openness to look at Web information as the same type of resource that they have available on a corporate basis, and they're more open to the idea of being able to transform it into a resource that has semantic structure and usefulness for enterprise-ready applications.
Glass: Think about it from the end user’s perspective. If I’m a businessperson and I need access to information, at the end of the day, I don’t really care where it comes from as long as I know the authority of the source, and as long as I’m able to quickly and efficiently use the information. Just make sure that it’s holistic, that I get as much information about the topics I’m looking for, and that it’s easy and efficient to use.
Blossom: Users in the corporate environment use open Web search engines as their first point to find information. The internal search engines that they have in the corporations are literally competing for attention with those. It only makes sense that those users are going to be very open to more sophisticated resources that are available to them on the Web.
Gardner: I suppose it boils down to, they want to know what they don’t know about what's going on out in the greater business environment.
Blossom: Absolutely. And, the Web itself is becoming the most efficient channel through which to communicate that information. There’s less need for the info-media ways of the past.
Gardner: Let’s drop down from a few thousand feet to the basement and get concrete here. Are there some examples of companies that have gone out -- perhaps beta customers for you at ZoomInfo -- and applied this kind of cutting edge innovative basis and had some payoffs?
Glass: We’ve got on the order of a couple of thousand customers that are using this technology now and getting bigger ROI out of being able to use this information that's just been gathered and display it efficiently from the open Web. Adobe is a good example. They use us within their field sales force. The problem they face is that their field sales are disparate. They look at a lot of different types of companies and a lot of different types of industries that all have different value props for using Adobe products.
A tool like ZoomInfo can define markets and really give a good holistic look at which companies play in a certain market space in a certain location. So, their field sales force has a good understanding of where they can go look for opportunities, all the way down to the specific person within the company -- whether it be the VP of marketing or whoever else would buy Adobe products.
Gardner: So you can take that notion of the Rolodex and just explode it. Not just shooting in the dark, but pinpointing the right people to talk to at the right time in certain companies. That gives you a much better chance of saying, “Aha, you’ve got a problem? I’ve got a solution.”
Glass: It’s a context. It’s understanding. Your Rolodex gives you a name in a company, but if you know that that person makes decisions about certain products, and you know that the person knows someone else that you already have as a customer, it really helps you be able to both warm the call, get yourself in the door, get your foot in the door, and then close the deal.
Gardner: If I'm selling and I find one company that’s a likely candidate for my universe, then I can apply the same criteria and probably come up with a bunch of similar companies, and then come up with an expanding universe of prospects.
Glass: That’s exactly right. It’s kind of like the crystal set. You need that one little crystal to form the entire large crystal. Once you know a single company in a certain area, you can pivot around that company and discover all the other companies that do exactly what that company does.
That’s all because of the way the Web works. Every company is out there trying to describe what they do. Having an intelligent technology that can take the metadata out of that, take the semantics out of that, and understand which companies are actually doing the same things is very powerful for business.
Gardner: I can apply that to sales and marketing prospects, looking for buyers, but I suppose I can apply the same approach of the Business Web to looking for partners, saying, "Here is a company that is doing something close to what I’m doing and there’s a natural affinity. Let me find all the other companies that could also potentially be in a partnership or a symbiotic relationship with me. Then, I'd have a whole new opportunity to expand my universe.
Glass: As we’ve all seen that in the Web and the hi-tech world today, "co-opetition" is the name of the game. You’re competing with companies, and at the same there are great efficiencies to working with them. If anybody has defined that, it’s Google. I don’t know of a single company that doesn’t have some sort of relationship with Google, even if it’s as simple as AdSense or using them to place ads on their content, but at the same time they’re often competing with Google for advertising dollars.
Blossom: What seems to be happening in the midst of this is that the Web is becoming a more effective tool over time to classify businesses than traditional industry classification schemes. The competitors I had three months ago are not necessarily the competitors I’m going to have three months from now -- or even today -- because business changes at the speed of light, as the Internet pumps information around the world and business strategies change on the dime.
In that sort of environment, it becomes more effective to be able to classify companies and individuals through semantics and relationships that are defined through Web content, than to rely exclusively on databases based on long standing industry classifications and formal relationships. Being able to get those webs of competitors and relationships right on the fly requires an environment like the Web, where that information changes every day.
Gardner: John, it seems to me there are some other mega trends that accelerate this. Globalization, we’ve mentioned. It seems that as companies go more to business-process outsourcing -- if they’re looking to employ services oriented architecture and software-as-a-service, it seems that its what wires and connects companies together becomes more important than having it all internal, doing it all yourself. Am I too far out here?
Blossom: Not really. There is a great example that Don Tapscott uses in his new book, Wikinomics. He talks about a gold mining company up in Canada that recognized all of a sudden that they had all sorts of potential deposits of gold, but they had no idea exactly where they were, and they wanted to get at them most efficiently. Their CEO happened to go to a seminar that was talking about open-source software and Linus Torvalds's development of Linux.
He said to himself, “Well, let’s open-source our functions." He put all of their normally secretive information about geology and mineralogy, mineral deposits that were on that property, and he put it out on the open Web and asked people to find the gold. He put out a little reward money. They got input from over 1,000 people, and doubled the yield of that property in just a matter of weeks.
Glass: Wisdom of crowds, right?
Blossom: The wisdom of crowds, which sounds a little bit frightening at times -- and at times it can be -- but the idea that corporations benefit most from wherever today’s most insightful people are at the drop of the hat, pushes people towards Web infrastructure, where they can collect that knowledge and wisdom as efficiently as possible in an open environment. That doesn't necessarily mean that they have business relationships with those people, but being part of that Web is becoming far more important over time than segmenting too much intellectual property behind the firewall.
Gardner: So, it sort of takes the notion of the knowledge economy a step further, that the coin of the realm is information in the right people’s hands at the right time?
Gardner: And search is a very powerful tool to bring that about. Well, great. This has been a good exploration of this notion of the Business Web. I was sort of fuzzy on it, and now I have a much better handle on it. Was there anything else that we needed to bring to the table for people to appreciate business Web? How about when this notion, still nebulous as it is, of Web 3.0 and the Semantic Web? Are we in the fifth or sixth inning of a nine-inning ballgame here, or are we only just in the first few minutes of this in terms of what’s going to be possible in the next few years?
Glass: We’re in the first few minutes. The Business Web and what's happening with tools like ZoomInfo is the first step. You can almost think of the Business Web as a microcosm for what's going to happen to the rest of the Web. This will be the first step toward a truly semantic type of search, where you can aggregate all this information and use the power of unstructured content to, as John said earlier, be able to recognize things on the fly, as they’re changing real time, and not have to rely on old categorizations and old information. The rest of the Web will head this direction, led by what's going on in the Business Web -- one big content nation comprised of individuals and institutions cooperating and collaborating to create knowledge that’s going to help all of us.
Gardner: That’s a high note to end on. I want to thank you both for joining us in this discussion of exploring the definition of a business Web, some of the tools that are available to explore that now, and what we can expect in the future. We’ve been taking this discussion to a new level with Russ Glass, Vice President of Product and Marketing at Zoom Information, and John Blossom, President of Shore Communications. Thank you, gentlemen.
Blossom: Thank you very much.
Glass: Thank you, Dana.
Gardner: This is Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions. You’ve been listening to a sponsored BriefingsDirect podcast. Thanks for listening, and join us next time.
SPECIAL OFFER: Listeners of this podcast are invited to try ZoomInfo's Business Web search and discovery benefits through a special free-trial offer. Just go to www.zoominfo.com/businesswebpodcast to obtain free access to Zoominfo's advanced business search capabilities.
Listen to the podcast here. Sponsor: Zoom Information, Inc.
Transcript of Dana Gardner’s BriefingsDirect podcast on Business Webs and relationships-oriented search. Copyright Interarbor Solutions, LLC, 2005-2007. All rights reserved.