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  •   .COM LIVE
    Hosted by Leslie Walker
    Washington Post Columnist
    Thursday, January 28, 1999
    Leslie Walker
    ".com" columnist Leslie Walker.

    Welcome to ".com Live." I'm your host Leslie Walker. Every other Thursday, I'm online from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern to explore the economic forces whirling through cyberspace. The live discussion gives you an opportunity to talk directly with entrepreneurs, visionaries and online business people about the competition to make money online and how the Internet is remaking the world of commerce.

    Read today's .com column then join us for a discussion.

    Gary Culliss My guest today is Gary Culliss, chairman and founder of Direct Hit, a Massachusetts start-up that has invented a way to make Internet search engines smarter. "Direct Hit" is used by HotBot, ICQ, LookSmart, Apple Computer and more to come. We will be talking about ways to make Internet search results more relevant, including the "Popularity Engine," a searching software program that Culliss created.

    Culliss was online with me on Thursday, January 28 from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.

    Leslie Walker: Hello out there and thanks for joining us. Our guest, Gary Culliss, is here to talk about the never-ending struggle to find the right stuff on the Net. He had a simple idea for making search results more relevant--a formula that moves popular sites higher in search returns. If you haven't read our story about how his company started, it's linked on the left. We're eager to hear your questions.

    Leslie Walker:
    Gary, can you start by explaining how the popularity search engine works?

    Gary Cullis: To tell you how Direct Hit works, I have to explain how traditional search engines work. There's basically two type. The first is "author controlled" (i.e. AltaVista, etc) because the authors control what words they put in the documents. Lots of sites, but poor relevancy and the authors can wrongfully influence the rankings.

    Yahoo and Looksmart are "editor controlled" because they have a staff of editors that manually classify sites. Better relevancy, but far fewer sites.

    Direct Hit looks to the users. Our rankings are based on clickthroughs, time spent at the site and a number of other metrics. So, the relevant sites move up in the list and the ignored sites sink.

    Leslie Walker: Your company just released a personalized search engine that is supposed to give me search results tailored to my interests. How does it know what I want?

    Gary Cullis: Direct Hit works by showing you what -- other people -- have selected for a similar search topic. Our personalized search works by showing you what -- other people like yourself -- have selected for a particular search topic. Right now, were looking at things like gender, age and geographic location to provide different results. We will soon consider additional information such as personal interests, etc. to provide more targeted results.

    Leslie Walker:
    What was the hardest part or biggest obstacle you faced in starting your company

    Gary Cullis: Finding the right people. Search engines have to index tens of millions of documents, handle millions of people submitting requests and respond in less than 1 second. Assembling a technical team up to this task was difficult, but we managed to put together a great team with people who have high speed transaction processing and database experience at large Internet sites.

    Leslie Walker: What do you use the Net for yourself, which search engines are your favorites? (It would be cheating to say Direct Hit!)

    Gary Cullis: I use the net for all types of research. For very obscure topics that other people have never researched, I'll use Altavista.

    Leslie Walker: A lot of readers are asking whether Direct Hit is a publicly traded company. It is not; it is privately held and has raised about $3.4 million in venture capital. Gary will talk later about the likelihood of an IPO down the road.

    Dayton, OH: How does Direct Hit differ from the upcoming Google search engine?

    Gary Cullis: Google is an adaptation of the time honored tradition of citation analysis. Basically, if "other authors" are linking to a site, that site will get a higher ranking. This is an "other-author controlled" technology (in addition to the "author controlled" search engines and "editor controlled" directories I mentioned above).

    Direct Hit is "user controlled" because it is the user activity that determines the rankings. Our system is far more scalable and responsive, especially in a ecommerce searching where people aren't linking to product pages.

    District Heights, MD: Is the growth of your company on target at this present time or exceeding your expectations.

    Gary Cullis: We've been moving extremely fast since inception. I'd say we're on pace with our expectations.

    District Heights, MD: What is the toughest problem you have encountered in running your business?

    Gary Cullis: As I mentioned, the toughest problem was finding great people. We've assembled a stellar team!

    Falls Church, VA: Do you eventually hope to take the company public?

    Gary Cullis: It's hard to tell right now. There's definitely a demand and we've received calls from investment bankers wanting to take us public. All I can say right now is that it's a possibility for 1999.

    gainesville fl: When did you realize that you had an idea that would work? What was the first few things you did to change it from an idea to reality?

    Gary Cullis: Technically, it started with theory, then a prototype, then we assembled a team of developers to build the full scale system.

    On the business side, the theory became a series of patent applications, then a business model, then a recruiting pitch for additional executive team members, then a pitch to the venture capitalist for our first round of funding.

    Mitchellville, MD: A number of years ago, an author got his book listed on the NYT bestseller list by finding out which stores the editors looked to for sales figures.

    Can't your popularity engine be similarly influenced?

    Gary Cullis: We have an arsenal of algorithms to detect this sort of wrongful influence and they're working great!

    Leslie Walker: Please keep your great questions rolling in. We're about halfway through today's discussion and Gary has lots of interesting questions facing him. But he can handle more. (Glad to see you're fast on the keyboard, Gary!)

    Leslie Walker: You told me your data so far shows interesting differences in what people search for based on their gender and age. Can you tell us more about those differences, like people searching for music or lyrics online?

    Gary Cullis: The differences are extremely interesting. As we analyze data, our algorithms detect differences and then show different results to different searchers. For example, it turns out that there's a big difference in what people are looking for with the topic of music. Teens look for certain types of music and downloads, whereas older searchers show a tendency towards more traditional types of music. So, we show different results to the next searcher depending on his or her age.

    District Hgts., MD: Please give us you opinion on the purchase of Geocities by Yahoo. How will that effect your business.

    Gary Cullis: The Geocities acquisition does not directly affect us. The recent deals are an indication that the Internet economy is remaining strong.

    gainesville florida: You had an idea that I'm sure plenty of people would have liked to have had their hands on. When you went looking for help as well capital, were you afraid that the idea would be stolen before you even got to do it?

    Gary Cullis: I relied upon my patent applications and non-disclosure forms (even though most VCs won't sign them). When making a pitch, never give sensitive information to people who are in a position to exploit it without an NDA. If they're not (a judgment call), then you can disclose a bit more.

    Nevertheless, it turns out that while what we're doing sounds conceptually simple, it is an extremely complex operation to process millions of records of data every day, maintain an index of tens of millions of sites, and handle requests for millions of users, all with a response time of less than one second. In addition to the patents and NDAs, it's likely that a barrier to entry like this will prevent people from taking your idea.

    Washington DC: Why is it that AltaVista seems more tuned to knowing what I want to find out, rather than sites like hotbot? Is it the ability to ask the site a question that helps?

    Gary Cullis: The "Ask AltaVista" technology is provided by a company called Ask Jeeves. It's an "editor controlled" technology because they have dozens of editors who figure out the questions and answers, so it tends to give more relevant results than a traditional search engine. It also helps that they assist you in zoning in on a particular search topic.

    Direct Hit now has a similar feature called "Related Search Terms" which will present additional search topics for you to explore. If you enter "wine," it will suggest that you explore the topic of "white wine" or "california wine." We released this product in December and it is now on HotBot and ICQ search. We've seen a dramatic increase in search activity and pageviews and our user studies indicate that searchers love being able to easily explore their topic in more detail.

    Our system is different than Ask Jeeves in that the Related Search Topics come from *other searchers*, not an editorial staff. So, there are many more topics and new ones appear quickly as a result of previous search activity.

    Mitchellville , Md: I am a HotBot user. It seems a step slower since they added your service. Is this my imagination?

    Gary Cullis: Yes, but it's not your imagination. We have not altered their traditional search engine. I can't say why the traditional search is slower.

    Leslie Walker: You must know some great searching tricks. What tips can you offer for those of us Internet klutzes who tend to click over to Yahoo! and type in "cars" when we want to buy a new one? Seriously, any tips on finding stuff quick, apart from clicking the DirectHit button?

    Gary Cullis: Well, unfortunately, the best searching trick is to get to know the peculiarities of each search engine. For example, I find that AltaVista works better if you put a "+" sign in front of each word.

    AP, gaithersburg, MD: Did you write the initial prototype software (for patent application) yourself? What is your experience in computer programming?

    Gary Cullis: I haven't programmed since Pascal and Fortran, so my skills are a little out of date. Basically, I designed the flow of information and the algorithms that determine the rankings. I then turned the design over to our prototype developer, Steven Yang, who coded the first implementation. Our professional development team then implemented the methods in a highly scalable system using the latest technologies.

    Vienna, VA : Leslie Walker's story about your company said you were working on ways to apply your technology to online shopping--to help Internet shoppers. Would you elaborate on how that might work?

    Gary Cullis: Sure. It turns out that traditional search engine technologies have trouble distinguishing between similarly named products. Also, the authors of the product page have an incentive to wrongfully influence the rankings (to get a sale). An editorial staff can't keep up with fast-changing inventories.

    By looking to the users, Direct Hit can quickly organize the data and present the most relevant products for a search. In addition, because our algorithms factor in the amount of time and other metrics, we essentially capture a quality metric from the user that accounts for things like branding on the web.

    We have nearly completed a shopping engine that harnesses the Direct Hit technology.

    Norfolk, VA: This idea of ranking search returns by how popular sites are puzzles me a little. What if what I'm looking for is an obscure site that other people don't like? Won't this make bland Web sites even more popular than they already are?

    Gary Cullis: If anyone else before you has also found the site your looking for, it should be ranked much higher in the list. But, if most people prefer other sites, they will be listed in a superior position.

    Rockville, MD: With personalized search, who gets access to the data collected about what sites people viewed? Do all your search partners have it, and do you plan to mine this data for marketing purposes?

    Gary Cullis: With, personalized search we don't know anything about who the person is or any of their contact information. Everything is totally anonymous. So, we never know *who* views a particular web site, we only know that *someone* viewed a particular site.

    Leslie Walker:
    At the rate the Internet is growing, do you think search engines will be able to keep indexing it in a meaningful way? Or will there come a point where it's too big for either humans or computers to catalogue any more?

    Gary Cullis: Right now, the Internet "pipeline" is only about 1/3 full. The number of users and the amount of information is expected to triple over the next few years.

    Traditional search engines are already overwhelmed with the amount of information out there, and the editorial sites are struggling to keep up with the growth and change.

    Direct Hit, on the other hand, scales easily with this growth by empowering the users to automatically organize the data.

    Leslie Walker: AFter the article about Direct Hit ran in The Post, I got quite a few e-mails about privacy issues, especially on the personalized version of Direct Hit. Can you talk about how you collect data, what data you collect, who has access to it?

    Gary Cullis: Good question. As I mentioned before, all data used by Direct Hit is totally anonymous, so it's really not a privacy issue at all.

    Gaithersburg, MD: I noticed that you were once going to be a patent attorney. Do you think there's a lot of patent searching business out there and will you do patent searching and indexing as part of your business?

    Gary Cullis: We're concentrating on Internet searching and ecommerce searching. Eventually, we may expand into other areas such as patent searching, but it's not our focus right now.

    Arlington, VA: Starting your own company is a gutsy move. Do you feel like you have the business perspective at age 28 to successfully shepherd the company to success? The road to true tech startup success is fraught with hardship.

    Gary Cullis: Well, yes and no. A lot of business involves people skills and intuition. But since I've never run a company, I knew I had to bring in a seasoned manager early on. Mike Cassidy, our CEO, was a perfect fit and our styles have complemented each other quite well. He ran a successful company called Stylus Innovation which was sold to Artisoft in 1996. He has amazing management skills.

    Vienna, VA: I read the article "Business atCyberspeed" in January 24,1999 Washington Post. My question is there any positions available in your new company? If so, is there any opportunities in Virginia? What is your fax # and web page address? Thank you!

    Gary Cullis: See the "jobs" link at our web site.

    Leslie Walker:
    What's the most fun part about what you're doing now?

    Gary Cullis: Seeing the Direct Hit technology work for people. We get tons of great feedback from our users and I read all of it.

    Bethesda, MD: I'm curious about how you see Internet searching evolving. It's so frustrating now. Not only do all the search engines have different techniques, but they all return lousy results. What do you think Internet search engines will be like in two or three years?

    Gary Cullis: Search engines will have to "learn" what searchers want to see. A search engine which is automatically organized by it's searchers is the most scalable model for keeping up with the growth of the web. Direct Hit is the only search engine technology that harnesses the searching efforts of its users. We think you'll see Direct Hit behind a large number of search sites on the web.

    Gary Cullis: Thanks to everyone for all the great questions! If you have any additional questions, feel free to email me at

    Leslie Walker: That's all we have time for today. Sorry we couldn't get to all of your questions. Thanks to Gary and to all of you who showed up and sent in lively questions. We'll be back in two weeks for another edition of .com Live. Hope to see you again!

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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