Sphere prepping to sort out the blogosphere

With more than 35 million blogs and over 50,000 posts per hour, the need for really good blogosphere search tools is even more critical. Technorati, IceRocket, Google and Yahoo, among others, are plowing the blog search ground.
Written by Dan Farber, Inactive

With more than 35 million blogs and over 50,000 posts per hour, the need for really good blogosphere search tools is even more critical. Technorati, IceRocket, Google and Yahoo, among others, are plowing the blog search ground. They are now trying to bring more intelligent filtering to the blogosphere, allowing the “cream” to rise to the top. In February, Technorati introduced an “authority” feature, which calculates a blog's authority by how many people link to it.
Now Sphere is entering the ring with what CEO Tony Conrad claims are better search results and authority algorithms than Technorati’s. The company had hoped to orchestrate a launch with bloggers in tow for today, but the company is still tweaking the service (getting ready for the workload that comes with turning on the service to hundreds of thousands) and is still closed to the non-beta public. Some bloggers missed the hold until further notice request from Sphere and have posted on the product, such as Chris Sherman on SearchEngineWatch.

With the cat out of the bag, here's my description of the Sphere, based on a conversation and quick demo from Conrad. It sounds good, and I looking forward to giving it a test drive...

Sphere applies three basic parts in its algorithms: link structure, semantic analysis and metadata. Link structure has several variables, such as if a high percentage of people link to a blogger, those who that blogger links to would benefit in their Sphere profile. Sphere semantically analyzes the content of a post summary or the entire post, distinguishing subject matter as a basis of authority. Metadata includes links, post frequency of keywords and post depth.


Sphere also allows users to search by relevance and across custom time periods, such as four hours or one week, and a interactive histogram widget for shifting time.
In addition to search, Sphere has “featured” blogs, which derives the highest quality blogs for about 13,000 keywords based on the algorithms. For more prominent keywords, some human editorial touch is applied, Conrad said. Although featured blogs show up by rank, they aren't numbered 1 through 10. That omission won't help Sphere stay out of the controveries, as Technorati has had, about it algorithmic rankings.

For each blog that it crawls, Sphere generates a profile with metadata, such as average posts per week, average words per post and links in and out.

Sphere also has a downloadable widget for accessing Sphere's index. For any article on the Web, you can click a 'Sphere It' button, which fires off a contextual analysis of the content on the page and then presents relevant blog search matches.

From a blog post, Sphere also generates related media, including news culled from more than 50 sources and photos (from CNET’s Webshots), on a separate page. Users can also submit recommendations for related media, which Sphere evaluates. Conrad said the he hopes to add more related media sources, such as other photo sources. Sphere is not supporting user tagging.

I asked Conrad about his strategy for competing against the GYM (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft). "The big players are in an interesting category. They can build it [themselves] or buy companies like us," he said. "It's difficult for everybody to build a great product. Long term they [GYM] will get there. We want to evolve in way that there is a much stronger reason to go to Sphere.com than Google, creating features that hook people into our site."

In some preliminary tests, Conrad claimed that Sphere's blog search results were judged up to 86 percent more relevant than the competition. Soon the blogosphere elite can test for themselves.
"We are focused on great blog search, with a handful of features," Conrad continued. “It’s about bloggers and readers, and we have a 50.1 percent emphasis on the reader. We want the product to be well received, as a significant evolution for blog search. We'll have a good shot to get a fair trial from those who use other services habitually...and there may be some early exit opportunities. If we are successful, we  have an opportunity to aggregate everything, to become a portal, but that’s not our goal today.”

First, the Sphere team needs to get the service up and running. Then it's on to concepts like gaining converts, building momentum, perhaps an early exit (getting scooped up by a large entity for a nice multiple) or becoming the smarter aggregation hub...or both...or none depending on how it goes.

At this point, Sphere is not running ads, but that will come post launch. Sphere is lean and mean, with only about $500,000 in angel investment so far in the year old company and with six employees scattered across the country, including Martin Remy of ThinkTank23 and Stevie Nieker. Conrad's former partner in Oddpost (sold to Yahoo) Toni Schneider (who is now CEO of Automattic) is a close adviser to company.

Stay tuned for more coverage as Sphere opens its doors... 

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