< Search is the New Black

Transcript

Friday, May 02, 2008

BOB GARFIELD:
Last month, a new search engine was born. It's not looking to out-Google Google. It's specifically engineered to return results of interest to a particular subset of the population – black people.

The site, called Rushmore Drive, after the street where it's headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, uses a unique algorithm to find those sites that are most heavily trafficked by blacks and edge them towards the top of the results list. I'm using the word "blacks" deliberately. This site isn't just for African-Americans. It's for the black diaspora – Africans, Caribbeans and Latin Americans of color living in the United States.

Johnny Taylor is the CEO of Black Web Enterprises, the division of IAC Interactive that developed Rushmore Drive. He's here to explain how a search engine can be tailored to a group.
JOHNNY TAYLOR:
The algorithm, it's one of the few places where the black community becomes the majority for purposes of producing results. In all of the mainstream search engines, the majority's behavior is what detects how the results are ultimately delivered.
BOB GARFIELD:
So you actually kind of rig the game by giving more prominence, based on ratings or whatever, to certain websites because they are identifiably black?
JOHNNY TAYLOR:
There's no rigging of the game. We have created the new game. We have finally found a way to deliver something more relevant to a targeted group of people. What the algorithm attempts to do, based upon behavior of this community, is to elevate those results that mean something specifically to the audience.

So, for example, typing in the word "Whitney" at a search engine may yield Whitney Houston and Whitney M. Young, two prominent African-American individuals, and in a mainstream search engine it may only yield results for Whitney College or Whitney Museum.

What we do is deliver all four. So it's not a rigging of anything. It's a new way to crawl the Web and deliver a more relevant search experience.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, Google is not in the search engine business because they think it's fun. They do it because it drives something like, I don't know, 17 billion dollars worth of revenue in a year. And I assume that the search advertising is the center of your business plan. What kind of advertisers are going to be buying search ads on Rushmore Drive?
JOHNNY TAYLOR:
Black people buy everything, so it's like every other market. And what's interesting is there's an opportunity here for those advertisers who currently have a significant market share in the black space to advertise, but it's also an opportunity for advertisers who've not yet really reached this audience and is looking for an opportunity.

When I'm looking for home appliances, if Lowe's does not have deep penetration in the black space, then maybe it should do so, particularly if Home Depot continues to come on the front page of our search results. And so, all types of advertisers should be reaching out.

It's really not about excluding or trying to stereotype or play into stereotypes. It's asking people – what our algorithm is trying to do is to really understand that when the black community types in a query, what does it really mean? What is it looking for?
BOB GARFIELD:
Johnny, thank you so much for joining us.

JOHNNY TAYLOR:
Very much appreciated.
BOB GARFIELD:
Johnny Taylor is the CEO of Black Web Enterprises.

Internet entrepreneur Omar Wasow co-founded BlackPlanet.com in 1999. He agrees that Google is not always in synch with its black users.
OMAR WASOW:
It may not be that when people are going to do searches for, you know, sort of headline news that Rushmore Drive is going to give a better perspective than Google.

But, you know, when you're looking for - you know, take the stories that are dominating the headlines now – Obama and Jeremiah Wright – there's a black perspective on that that's not going to be reflected in the mainstream media.
BOB GARFIELD:
Have you used Rushmore Drive yourself?
OMAR WASOW:
I have played with Rushmore Drive. Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD:
What have you noticed?
OMAR WASOW:
What's challenging about it is that it's not obvious to somebody who's using it for the first time how it offers a better search experience for African-Americans. And so I think they've got a bit of a marketing problem, and it wasn't until I read an article about the site that I understood how much fairly sophisticated technology is going on behind the scenes.
BOB GARFIELD:
Let's talk about the larger picture of black media. There seems to be some sort of flourishing process going on, almost as if the digital divide that seemed like such a worry may not be such a worry after all. Is black America catching up online?
OMAR WASOW:
One of my favorite quotes by a science-fiction writer is that the future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed. And what we've seen with the Internet is that the digital divide was really, I think, more about a moment in time where there was a lag between early adopters and mass America. It's become something that's much more part of the fabric of everyday America, including black America.

Where we do see a divide on the Internet continues to be around sort of class and education, less so about race.
BOB GARFIELD:
Because it costs relatively so little to get up and running online, do you expect, for that reason alone, to be a greater number of choices and a greater ability to reach a black audience?
OMAR WASOW:
I think we're already seeing that that's happening online, that there's a much greater variety of black experiences represented on the Internet and a much greater variety of black points of view represented on the Internet.
BOB GARFIELD:
That gets to your business, BlackPlanet.com, which is as very broad-brush affair.
OMAR WASOW:
Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD:
And, I guess, attempts to be relevant to the entire breadth of the black community. What about the slicing and dicing of your audience? Are you going to spin off to narrower and narrower niches within black America or do you think that your business model works fine for the foreseeable future?
OMAR WASOW:
Well, I should be clear about one thing, which is that a couple of weeks ago BlackPlanet was sold to a large urban radio network, Radio One; with their base of radio stations – they've got 53 stations around the country – are going to be able to market to a very broad African-American consumer base that will, you know, undoubtedly both grow the site but also reflect that core mainstream radio audience.

My advisor at Harvard, Henry Lewis Gates, has a website, TheRoot.com, and TheRoot.com is really targeting a much more sort of literate audience that is interested in reading about news and politics. BlackPlanet is much less about news and politics.

And then there's a part of TheRoot that is genealogy. African-Americans are hugely interested in genealogy. And then even Radio One has just launched a news site called Newsone.com. And so we're seeing lots of different kinds of services.

And I think no one site can really serve everyone. And so what's great about what you see online that we don't see so much in television and radio, and we see to a lesser degree – though I think still more so – in print, is this kind of targeting by [LAUGHS] African-American media makers of segments within the community.
BOB GARFIELD:
One final thing. Neither the future of BlackPlanet.com nor RushmoreDrive.com will hinge on whether users will find them interesting. It will hinge on whether advertisers find [LAUGHS] them interesting and prosper by advertising there.

Is what would seem to be a natural market actually materializing in the way that you expected?

OMAR WASOW:
Well, let me first just challenge you a little on the premise that the consumer doesn't matter. One of the things that's most exciting about the Internet is that if you don't really super-serve your customer, there's so much competition online that people will go somewhere else.

The other customer, though, is obviously the advertiser. And I think what we've seen broadly in the Internet is that the advertisers have been slow to adopt it. And I think the folks targeting ethnic audiences have been even more cautious, generally, although there have been some real standouts.

And so it, you know, took a while for some of the major advertisers to come on board, but I think they're realizing that it has the potential to be one of the most powerful forces in helping them get their message out and are embracing it now.
BOB GARFIELD:
Omar, thank you very much.
OMAR WASOW:
Thank you. Take care.
BOB GARFIELD:
Omar Wasow co-founded BlackPlanet.com in 1999, just sold it, and he's now getting a Ph.D. in African-American Studies at Harvard.