Going deeper than Google
Software called Grokker could be the future of search
By David Kirkpatrick
(FORTUNE.COM) -- Loyal readers may remember my passionate enthusiasm a year ago upon the release of a new Web search product called Grokker (Making online searches more useful).
This software tool takes the data culled by an online search and organizes it visually into categories that enable you to quickly dig deeply to find the exact site or information you need. Grokker broke new ground, but later ran out of gas when the Northern Lights search engine, on which it was based, went out of business.
Now Grokker is back as a smarter and less expensive ($49 instead of $99) application that works on top of many different databases, including the all-important Google. I'm as excited this time as I was a year ago. This really could be the future for finding information.
The new Grokker was released Monday by startup Groxis. It makes me wonder if Google really does have search as sewed up as we often assume. When you use Grokker you realize just how brain dead even the best search tools are today.
Grokker is not a Web service but an application that sits on your PC. (A Mac OS X version should be ready in about four weeks, say executives.)
Grokker takes the raw output of a search and organizes it into categories and subcategories. Groxis has put more intelligence into the software this time, so it is not dependent, as it was with Northern Lights, on categories established by others. This means that a wide variety of types of databases can be Grokked-now Grokker can search with six different engines simultaneously -- Yahoo, MSN, Alta Vista, Fast, Teoma, and WiseNet.
It also can organize searches for products on Amazon or for files on your own desktop. Google capability is coming within weeks, Groxis says, as a separate software component that users will add. Soon you will also be able to use it in conjunction with AskJeeves, eBay, social networks like Linkedin, and job site Monster.
Grokker creates a visual representation of a search. When you type in, say, "nanotechnology," Grokker starts organizing data from the multiple search engines. You see a big circle, within which are smaller circles with labels including "conference," "technology," "science," "research," "reports," "news," "molecular," "material," and so on. Each represents a subset of data on nanotechnology.
Click on, say, "molecular," and that circle will enlarge so you can see several further subcircles, one of which is "molecular assemblies." Click on that, and another category becomes visible entitled "molecular assembly sequencing software."
Now you could, in theory, have typed that exact phrase into Google and gotten to the same Web sites. However, in many cases you can't be sure what you're looking for because you simply don't know what's out there. Grokker gives you an easy way to delve into a data set, and it often leads to info-revelations.
For example, a Grokker search of the Amazon database, also using the initial term "nanotechnology," included a category circle labeled "children's books." I would not have predicted that children's books on nanotech existed. But a few further clicks reveal a book entitled "Nanotechnology: Invisible Machines," for 9-12 year-olds, as well as -- even more unexpectedly -- "Submarines and Underwater Exploration," for kids 4-8. If you didn't know to look for it you'd never have found it, most likely.
A search using Amazon's own onsite search tool, in which I asked for books for 4-8 year-olds related to the subject of nanotechnology, found no matches.
Says R.J. Pittman, CEO of Groxis: "Google has indexed several billion pages, but there are between 550 and 600 billion in total on what's referred to as the invisible Web or deep Web. Within a year Grokker will have ten times the reach of Google in terms of available Web pages."
Adds Paul Hawken, the environmentalist and entrepreneur who is chairman of Groxis: "Google can't do it because their technology is based on lists." Hawken came up with the idea for Grokker a couple of years ago when he grew frustrated with the difficulty of finding information about environmental issues. He hooked up with some ace programmers and Grokker is the result.
Groxis may get traction first in the education market. Both the Los Angeles and Chicago school districts have already taken trial licenses to see whether Grokker would be useful for their students. The University of Nevada bought a license for 500 seats, and is putting Grokker in campus computer labs.
The real competition for Grokker is the amazing ability of Google and other search engines to place at the top of a thousand-site list just the one you were looking for. If you're good at stipulating the terms for a Google search you may find Grokker unnecessary. When I used the inferior predecessor I found that there was no reason to use Grokker for the vast majority of searches.
But for some very important projects -- like finding a certain type of real estate broker in a specific region -- it was incomparable. I was able to find a broker in minutes with Grokker that had been completely absent from my Google searches.
In the most personally gratifying moment of the demonstration CEO Pittman gave me last week, he typed in "David Kirkpatrick." There inside the big circle were two other circles representing me and my work at FORTUNE. A smaller circle was labeled "New York Times." That's where a much younger (and very talented) business journalist of the same name writes. Since I've been writing for more than a decade longer than the other DK, it's nice that Grokker figured that out.
Grokker can be downloaded for $49, or you can get a 30-day free trial, at Groxis.com.