Congoo officially launched its startup search service in early 2006 with a mission to index and retrieve "hidden" content from premium sites and to provide limited free introductory access via a "NetPass" as a way to drive new use and subscriptions. Congoo is a word derived from content + glue. Now, a year later, it is fulfilling the promise of its name. Congoo offers compelling premium content along with aggregated content from around the Web. It recently introduced Congoo News (http://news.congoo.com), which provides categorized access to more than 25,000 free news sources and 300 premium sources. With the addition of the just-announced News Circles feature, Congoo now also offers a compelling social networking and communication platform that adds the "glue" to the service.
News Circles claims to be the first Web platform where users can easily select from hundreds of news categories to build and share custom news portals. The service includes tools for blogging and sharing thoughts with a specific group of users in a public (findable by search engines) or private forum. News Circles empowers people to create information-update mechanisms for themselves and their teams—socially, professionally, or to share a common interest. Owners of News Circles can invite others to join them and can moderate and edit comments. News Circles each have a unique URL, chosen by users when created, such as www.congoo.com/acmenews.
Congoo's News Circles lets users pick from about 480 predetermined news categories or create their own using keyword searches. The categories looked very familiar to me, and Congoo's founder and CEO, Ash Nashed, confirmed that the newsfeeds are supplied to Congoo through a partnership with Moreover. But, he said, "we've done some unique things and added a lot of quality [to the feeds]."
"Building a News Circle literally took me just 2 minutes," said David Meerman Scott, a columnist for EContent and the author of The New Rules of Marketing and PR. "We're witnessing the intersection of social media and news sharing. With News Circles, there is no longer a tyranny of news sharing being only for the technologically literate."
Nashed commented on the usefulness of providing an up-to-date dialogue. "If you want to reach new customers, tell people about your expertise, comment about news in your industry, or do some social networking about a specific topic, News Circles lets you do that without spending lots of time writing and updating a blog."
The service adds some 150,000-200,000 articles each day to Congoo News. Nashed said that placement of articles on the News home page and within news categories was "primarily algorithmic" with priority placement given to some of the more established, important, and premium sites. Coverage by The Wall Street Journal, for example, would be listed ahead of a small newspaper's. A proprietary engine powers the premium Web results and news results, while Yahoo! powers the regular Web search.
Congoo is the brainchild of Nashed and Rafael Cosentino, vice president of business development. Nashed was the co-founder of Choice Media, an online network of premium Web sites dedicated to consumer healthcare, which he sold in early 2005. Nashed, an emergency room doctor who spent 15 years practicing and teaching, said he came up with the idea for Congoo after medical students complained that they could not gain access to requested articles in online journals without a subscription. In 2003, he received the software patent that enables Congoo's NetPass toolbar to communicate with the partner publishers to permit users to access the premium content.
Users do need to download and install the free Congoo NetPass toolbar in order to gain access to the partner subscription sites (available only for Windows—both Internet Explorer 5.5+ and Firefox 1.0+). Users can access several articles free every month from each of Congoo's partner publishers. The number of free articles varies by publisher and ranges between 4 and 15 per month per publisher. With the NetPass, you can actually access the content directly by going to some of the sites themselves without having to search on Congoo. (Of course, the publishers hope that having provisional access will show users the value of subscribing to their content.)
Congoo provides a list of premium and subscription content sites that are NetPass-enabled (www.congoo.com/congoosource.aspx), including whether each permits direct access with the NetPass. The list includes The Wall Street Journal, FT.com, the Chicago Tribune, and many more. The service also provides access to some valuable reference content for free, including Harvard Health Publications, which Nashed said would normally cost between $4 and $10 each. Congoo also includes content from a number of encyclopedias supplied by Thomson Gale, including the Encyclopedia of Cancer, the Encyclopedia of Business and Finance, the Encyclopedia of Small Business, Cities of the World, and the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. It even includes free access to articles from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Nashed said the company spent the first year securing contracts with publishers. Contract terms were not disclosed.
At this point, the service is in its 1.0 beta and has lots of room for improvement, Nashed admitted. There are no advanced features for searching or sorting results. Search results are relevancy ranked with no option to sort by date/time. Nashed said that the feature for keyword monitoring within News Circles would be enhanced so that users could build a query with refinements. In addition, version 1.1, which should be released in about 2 months, will let users have more control, such as adding their own articles, deleting articles, and possibly sorting results. Other customizable features and sharing tools are also planned. He is eager to hear user feedback.
Nashed emphasized that Congoo now offers several features that really set it apart from other news and information sites. It allows users to build a custom news portal and to offer access to others. It provides free access to valuable subscription-based content. And, he added, "There are few sites that offer such easy personalization." Nashed also stressed the value of Congoo for users that might need content from a subscription site just once or infrequently. Further, he noted, most of the news sources now have a 6-7 year archive of articles.
Here's a tip I discovered in an unofficial blog about Google: Most of the content from Google News Archives (http://news.google.com) requires subscriptions. A good way to get free access to some of the archives is to install the Congoo toolbar.
Of course, if more people realized the content available to them for free through their public libraries with just a library card, perhaps there wouldn't be as much need for a service like Congoo. However, Congoo does offer compelling aggregation, categorized browsable and searchable access from within the browser, and now, a way to create a social network platform for sharing news. Librarians, are you watching this?