Online search in China is hot and few companies are taking the creative steps that Bbmao is working on to help netizens find important information. With a Master's degrees in nonlinear nonequilibrium physics and in artificial intelligence from the University of Toronto, Bbmao's CEO Kiam Choo is harnessing his experiences at Xerox PARC and Verity to power China's latest Internet search startup, bbmao.com.
When was the genesis for Bbmao and who was involved at the start?
As a post-graduate student in Toronto, I realized that I had many, many ideas about where the Internet could take us in the future, and I was always itching to do something about it. Working at Verity made me interested in Internet search. In particular, I realized that search engines need to interact with users better than they do right now, and that social and collaborative behaviour by users can bring a lot of order to the oceans of information on the Internet.
A lot of people began realizing the same thing around that time. And that has led to what is now called Web 2.0 in the industry. Web 2.0 is a new class of websites and services, many of which have a social collaborative aspect.
I took a break from work in 2003 to travel extensively in China, and in 2004, I moved to China to bring to fruition my ideas for building a next generation search engine.
In the beginning, there was just me writing some code. We got funding last year, and now we have eight staff plus a dog. We did a soft launch of bbmao.com just before Spring Festival this year.
Apart from me in the role of CEO, our management comprises William Milewski, CFO, and Thomas Lee, VP Products. Bill was in executive financial management positions with ABB and AsiaContent.com, which went public on NASDAQ. Thomas Lee, formerly of ILOG, is one of the co-founders of the company, and brings deep product expertise to our company. We are still looking for the hottest talent, and perhaps some interested readers can get in touch with us.
How much have you raised so far and how much more do you expect to raise in the next 18 months? How do you plan to spend your funding?
We have raised more than we need on the conservative side, but the amount raised so far is not public information. Our principal funding comes from 2 parties. One is an individual from Silicon Valley in the US whom I cannot name just now. The other investor is a California-based VC firm headed by Brad Greenspan, founder of Intermix Media. It is a part of a much larger investment strategy.
We will spend some of our money continuously creating the best product and user experience. We haven't marketed Bbmao yet, but expect to see us enter some important niches such as the blogosphere in the near future with some very innovative approaches.
How does your metasearch differ from other Chinese metasearch sites and what can you provide that others cannot?
Bbmao is unique in that it is the first and only Web 2.0 search engine in China. In the Internet industry, everyone is talking about Web 2.0 and what it is. Unfortunately, there is a lot of smoke and empty hype, but beneath all that, there really is something important going on.
Web 2.0 is not easily defined in a few words, but there is a class of Web 2.0 sites such as Bbmao where users come together to create and share content in such a way that is it publicly viewable by anyone. This is a very powerful new paradigm.
In the past, with the exception of sites like BBS's, the fact that a site was heavily trafficked made little difference to its usefulness. Everyone got the same information and the same service.
On Bbmao, searchers use Bbmao's social bookmarking feature to save useful web pages that are then shared out to all other users. Each time a new user joins or bookmarks something, you can discover yet another great web site. The number of connections you can draw between users grows multiplicatively with the number of users, so Bbmao's usefulness to its users grows very, very quickly. Bbmao is the only search engine in China whose power increases as its user base grows.
Another way to look at it is that Bbmao is quite unlike traditional search engines where users engage in a single, linear activity of searching, find what they need, and then leave without adding any value to other users. Bbmao's social bookmarking feature lets users bring value back to other users by bookmarking high quality web pages that they have found. Users on Bbmao engage in a cycle of discover, save and share that adds more and more value to the website each time.
Bbmao is also unique in that it automatically clusters search results into categories unlike any of the major search engines. This way, users can zoom quickly into certain categories they are interested in rather than scan the results laboriously and finally find it on the ninth page, if at all. For instance, a search on Bbmao for "ski" yields the clusters "ski lessons", "ski resorts" and "ski holiday". The user looking to learn skiing can then click on "ski lessons". Even the major search engines in China do not offer clustering.
Finally, we recently released a job metasearch feature on Bbmao, job.bbmao.com. This feature allows the user to search several major job sites simultaneously without having to visit each one in turn. Timing could not be better. The post-Spring Festival period is the most active period for job search, leading to the season when 1.8 million graduates search for employment.
How will Bbmao earn revenue and what type of forecasts can you provide?
The most recent statistics estimates China's Internet user population at 110 million, with around 300 million web searches a day in China, and growing. Furthermore, a recent study by Keynote Systems found that 30-50% of Chinese search users are "dissatisfied" with their search experience. This represents a tremendous opportunity for Bbmao.
We are focused on serving the massive pool of knowledge professionals and students in China whose needs have not been well met by search tools until now. As Bbmao is committed to keeping its service free, our revenue source is advertising. I cannot provide detailed forecasts, but if we meet our market share goals, we will be a very profitable company.
Why is search so important for Internet users?
We live in a significant era, an era in which the Internet is empowering more people with more information than ever before. Search, being how people find information, is the key component that has made this possible. But for all its impact, search still needs a lot of work. As mentioned above, 30-50% of Chinese search users are dissatisfied with their search experience.
At Bbmao, we are creating the future of search in our lab everyday. When a searcher uses Bbmao's clustered search and clicks on categories, he is effectively having a conversation with the computer in which he is saying something like, "OK, find me information on cats…ok, now zoom in on Persian cats…now narrow down to the history of Persian cats."
One day, search will consist of a real conversation with computers in natural human language, much like with the computer Hal in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001. Bbmao's clustered search is part of the effort to make this a reality.
How are you making your search results comply with local and national laws in China?
Google has been in the news a lot over censorship in compliance with Chinese regulations. A lot of the reaction overseas, such as student demonstrations, is quite unfortunate, and is partially the result of misconceptions about China. For instance, the recent film Memoirs of a Geisha is banned in China, but its pirated DVD is widely available in stores everywhere.
Unlike Google, Bbmao is in a very fortunate situation in this respect. As a metasearch engine, we sit on top of other search engines which we know are filtering and self-censoring their search results. In theory, we are able to offer our users the best search results of these individual search engines.
No search engine provides more than 30% of all available Internet content, so with censorship, the available content gets narrowed even further. This is all the more reason for someone to use Bbmao metasearch. For these reasons, we enjoy cost savings and mitigated business risks to operate our business here.