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Enterprise Solutions and Mainstream Media Get Into the Sphere
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Posted On November 13, 2006
Sphere (http://www.sphere.com), a blog search engine, is starting to make a move into new distribution channels with its newly announced partnerships. MarketWatch.com has introduced Sphere's contextual blog search tool across its article and blog pages, marking the first integration of Sphere's contextual widget (module) by a major media organization. KnowNow, Inc. (http://www.knownow.com), a provider of enterprise solutions, announced an exclusive partnership with Sphere. KnowNow will market, sell, and support Sphere within the enterprise. The companies say this is the first collaboration of enterprise-class Web 2.0 solutions in the market.

Tony Conrad, CEO of Sphere, said the company is doing its part to help the blogosphere reach a much broader audience of readers. He stressed both the ease of use for the reader and the ease of installation for the publisher. In his blog he wrote: " We may be jaded (heck, we love this thing) but the feedback we've gotten to date tells us we're not just blowing smoke when we say this is a superior strategy for integrating the blogosphere into mainstream media. In addition to the immediacy of what's being delivered[,] the results are also more comprehensive and less prone to spam. It's a real win/win. The reader gets a richer experience and the publisher gets opportunities to expose the reader to additional related content (and get more page views in the process)."

And, of course, with this partnership, Sphere gains valuable visibility and validation since a key mainstream media organization is using its blog search technology. MarketWatch, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Dow Jones & Co., is a provider of business news, financial information, and analytical tools on several sites, including MarketWatch.com. The Sphere contextual widget, which uses AJAX technology, has been customized to integrate seamlessly within the MarketWatch.com site. Listed under every article page and blog post are sharing and tagging tools, followed by a "More Content: Related Blogs & Articles" link that launches the Sphere widget. Users can then browse bloggers' content on the topic, related articles from MarketWatch, and several MarketWatch blogs.

"We are pleased to partner with Sphere to surface the best, most relevant blogs for our users, enabling them to connect with the larger conversation online," said Gordon McLeod, president, Dow Jones Online.

The partnership with KnowNow will turn both internal and external blogs into manageable resources for enterprise customers. KnowNow is integrating Sphere's technology to provide an intelligence solution that offers continuous monitoring of public and private information用resented in a single view. The companies say the combined solution will distinguish between new and old information, understand the authority of the source of information, and suppress spam.

"Sphere's unique capabilities are extremely valuable to our customers用resenting the opportunity to tap into critical information about their business, market, or competition as it appears in the blogosphere," said Todd Rulon-Miller, CEO of KnowNow. "Our growing list of Fortune 1000 customers in banking, technology, and consulting services are demanding enterprise-class Web 2.0 solutions to help manage their information overload."

Conrad said that Sphere has been providing RSS feeds to KnowNow for several months already. The companies plan to quickly introduce new integrated products, he said. "Todd and I share the same philosophy." The "exclusive" part of the partnership contract stipulates that the two companies will not work with direct competitors.

According to KnowNow CTO Ron Rasmussen, the Sphere solution will first be available for the company's Market Intelligence solution, though it could be available to any KnowNow enterprise customer as a monthly subscription用ricing details have not been set. He said that working with the private API from Sphere allows them to use powerful and sophisticated queries and provide higher quality and more relevant data. Other advantages to an enterprise include a single point of access and the ability to share throughout an organization, the correlation of public and private content, and continuous delivery of results (what he called prospective search). And it's ad-free.

Conrad and the other founders of Sphere are veterans of several Internet startups, including Oddpost and Wordpress. They started Sphere with a single focus葉o build a blog search engine that provides high-quality, relevant content on a timely basis.

Blog search is a different creature than Web search葉he content is so new that it doesn't have sufficient links to help with ranking. "And," explained Conrad, "link-based strategies are notoriously prone to spam." Rather than rely on links, Sphere looks for related content and provides a contextual match. Sphere claims its advanced algorithms do a better job, and the general buzz is that search experts and users agree.

Sphere was first released in a private beta version in late 2005. Even back then, search expert John Battelle wrote in his blog (http://battellemedia.com/archives/001965.php): "Sphere works better than other blog search I've seen, plain and simple. Why? It uses a combination of factors to do a more robust ranking methodology of blogs and posts. It pays attention to the ecology of relationships between blogs, for example, and it gives a higher weighted value to links that have more authority. Sphere also looks at metadata about a blog to inform its ranking揺ow often does the author post, how long are the posts, how many links on average does a post get? Lastly, Sphere uses content semantic analysis to help determine rank."

Conrad said this last element is the company's "secret sauce" that keeps spam out and understands what a blog post is about. He said the technology has improved greatly just since its launch in May 2006. "We work on our algorithms every day." When I asked for a specific example, he said that there's more emphasis on analyzing chronology (in the metadata), which enables Sphere to pick up on breaking news and make sure new voices get represented.

One blog comment recently submitted by a user of Sphere (Scott Johnson, founder of Ookles and Feedster) compares the tool to the competition: "But I like Sphere, which I was skeptical of at first. I find myself using it a lot. Technorati is a bloody mess. Unreadable. Headache to look at. Google blog search is okay, but I find [it is] not so great with ranking results容specially by date/time and by relevance. Sphere has a clean and simple interface. Somehow Sphere returns timely and relevant results庸rom even the most obscure blogs. I've tested! So good work."

Search Expert Chris Sherman was impressed with Sphere. He wrote in SearchDay: "Sphere's approach to blog search is unlike any other I've yet seen. It's a clean, easy-to-use service that usually offers good results uncluttered by the blogorrhea that's so often surfaced in other blog search engines."

Sphere.com recently launched a new home page design and said that it revamped how blog posts and "related media" items are integrated and displayed. The related media include podcasts (from a Yahoo! API), books (Amazon API), and photos (CNET Webshots API). Sphere also provides related news articles from more than 50 mainstream news sites, such as CNN, NYT, ESPN, Fox, USA TODAY, and more.

Sphere offers a free Sphere It! bookmarklet that installs into a browser's toolbar for Safari, Firefox, or Internet Explorer. It makes it easy to find blog posts that relate to what you're reading on the Web, such as a news article.

The Sphere contextual widget takes the Sphere It! application one step further to help online media and micro publishers tap into the blogosphere as well as to promote their own articles and pull in their own blogs or make recommendations out to related blogs. Conrad said that bloggers can choose to point to each other's bogs預s TechCrunch and GigaOM do, for example.

Here are the details from Conrad about how implementing the widget works: "We put in place a RevShare with all partners for advertising served in the bottom right quadrant of the Contextual Widget. Larger partners with highly customized needs also pay a nominal one-time implementation fee."

Sphere has been indexing blogs since January 2003, but in its live index, 4 months of posts are currently searchable. Conrad said the company could choose to lengthen this window but would need more hardware to do so. He felt that this would appeal to a minority of searchers and perhaps the company could provide this at a premium at some point.

Sphere.com used to have a cool feature that let users view results within a custom range and track mentions of a topic over time using an interactive graph with adjustable sliders. Conrad said that not enough people used it. However, he promised that it would return when they were able to make it work faster. The company is very eager for feedback from users.


Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.


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