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Making online searches more useful

For anybody who searches the web frequently for specific information, new software called Grokker is a revelation

By David Kirkpatrick
FORTUNE.COM


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(FORTUNE.COM) -- Seldom do I see something that makes me want to run and write about it immediately. This morning it happened. Within 10 minutes of starting the demo of a new tool for organizing data, I was already itching to use it.

The product, called Grokker and made by a startup called Groxis, can visually organize any aggregation of data. If you search the web for, say, Saddam Hussein, the software automatically creates a graphic map of the results-a series of concentric spheres, each representing a clearly labeled category. Click on a sphere to see its sub-categories. Curious about Saddam and the UN? Click on the sphere labeled "United Nations" and get more detailed spheres with still others inside them, like one labeled "BBC." When you get down to the level of individual documents, the spheres turns into mere circles, and in this case an individual BBC story displays in the browser. Or you might instead have chosen to delve into Saddam and the Iran-Iraq War, Persian Gulf War, Iraq Government, or George Bush, among many choices. All this is done automatically, using what's called metadata-information about what's on a particular page-included in the web documents.

This contrasts dramatically with the typical experience on Google, which of course remains the search engine of choice for most web users. (By the way, I take pride in having written one of the very first detailed articles about Google, back in November 1999.) Google is still great, but a major limitation of current search engines is that they don't allow you to refine your search to a second level and deeper. Says Groxis CEO RJ Pittman: "We don't need another search engine. What we need is a tool to make the results of the engines more useful."

He's right, and Grokker does it. Visual organization tools have been around forever, and some have even been applied to a similar purpose. But this is the first time I've seen a product that I might regularly use. It speeds searching by eliminating the need to scroll through page after page of search results. In about 30 seconds with Grokker, I found a piece of information that I'd spent more than 10 minutes Google-ing for yesterday before giving up. For anybody who searches the web frequently for specific information, this product is a revelation. It seems like the inevitable direction that data searching will take, whether or not this company ends up capitalizing on it.

In the few places that a preview version of Grokker has been available, people have lined up to buy it at $99. It's awfully unusual today to see a new desktop PC application that many, many people might want right away. That alone makes the Grokker unique. But two other things make it even more exciting. First, it works on Mac OS X as well as recent versions of Windows. And more importantly, while it works fine on current PCs, it will work even better on faster ones.

That's potentially good news for the PC sector because nothing now inhibits industry growth more than the lack of widely adopted new software that requires faster processors. (I just wrote a long piece on this subject in the October 28 issue of FORTUNE. See "The PC's New Tricks.")

Another fascinating aspect of Groxis is that its chairman is Paul Hawken-yes, the co-founder of garden supplies company Smith & Hawken and author of numerous books on business and environmentalism. The roots of Groxis, in part, were in Hawken's efforts to use tools from an earlier software company he'd founded called Metacode to map dynamic systems in studies on environmental sustainability. Says he: "This product has seduced me for the last year and a half." (Hawken's ideas about the world's future are so interesting that I took the opportunity of our meeting to successfully recruit him for our Brainstorm 2003 conference.)

Not everything about Grokker is perfect, of course. It takes some practice to learn how to use. It's not as visually elegant as it could be, though that should be easy to fix. It only works with databases that are tuned for it, so it currently doesn't work with Google, though you can search the web with the Northern Light engine.

The commercial product, priced around $135, will be out within 30 days. A more high-end Grokker will go on sale early next year, and will allow you, for example, to publish a Grokker results map on a web site. In the basic version, maps can be stored on your desktop or e-mailed to a friend. Within the next week or so the company will make available a free reader to view somebody else's Grokker map, much as Adobe gives away its Acrobat software. For more detail on the company and its product see www.Groxis.com.


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