May 31, 2007

Aloha to Mahalo, Calacanis’ new reference tool

Filed under: google, search, wikipedia — Rakesh Agrawal @ 2:56 pm

Mahalo launched yesterday to much fanfare. The reference tool comes from Jason Calacanis, the entrepreneur behind Weblogs, Inc. and the founder of the Silicon Alley Reporter. Billed as “the world’s first human-powered search engine”, Mahalo is a cross between Wikipedia and the Open Directory Project. All three use human editors to deliver, theoretically, better answers.

The goal of Mahalo is to curate the “head” of search queries – the queries that are the most popular. Mahalo currently covers about 4,000 terms, with the goal of expanding to about 10,000.

Mahalo logoSearching for popular terms like “Britney Spears”, “iraq war” or “Wii”, returns results that have been written by a human editor. (Searches for terms that Mahalo doesn’t cover return Google results.) Part of the premise is that a team of trained editors won’t be gamed by SEOs and SEMs the way an algorithm can be.

Unlike Wikipedia, which is open for anyone to edit, and the ODP, which has about 8,000 volunteer editors, Mahalo has a small team of staff editors. Where Wikipedia focuses on facts and ODP on Web sites, Mahalo offers a mix of the two and then some.

The content of the search results pages vary dramatically based on the content of the term. The search for Wii brings up categories such as News, Reviews, Retailers and Coupons and Deals. A search for Steve Jobs brings up videos, photos, a profile and a bio. For someone looking for basic information on a topic, Mahalo provides quick nuggets of information. A section labeled “The Mahalo Top 7″ is consistent from page to page.

Mahalo mixes in feeds of information on fast changing subjects. In the search for “iraq war”, you get headlines on the topic including a story from Reuters and a feed from Fox News.

One of the challenges of human-edited results is that even in a limited universe of 10,000 pages, things change and pages get outdated quickly. Links can break. News becomes old. The Iraq War page’s News section has the headline “House OKs Iraq bill with timetable for pullout”. The story is more than a month old and has been superseded by more recent events.

The other big challenge is that it brings up the question of bias. Does the choice of Fox News as the feed provider for “Hillary Clinton” reflect a bias on the part of Nicole Gustas, the editor of that page? Or is Fox News the only feed easily available?

Results can be quirky, reflecting the whims of editors, both in terms of what’s covered and what’s on the Mahalo page. Searching for “Larry Page” or “Sergey Brin” didn’t bring up a Mahalo page, but you do get Mahalo pages for “Kevin Rose” and “John Battelle”. The #4 link on a search for eBay is a link to the member profile for andy46477. I’m not sure if that link, designated as a “Guide’s Choice”, is an inside joke that I’m missing.

The site has a playful feel to it, from the name (which means “Thank you” in Hawaiian) to the shaka (sorry, no Mahalo results for shaka), next to Guide’s Choice links.

Mahalo is backed by top-flight investors including Sequoia, Elon Musk (co-founder of PayPal) and News Corp.

On the whole, it’s an interesting experiment. I don’t see Google shaking in its boots over Mahalo yet, but I can see using it when I’m looking for a quick overview on a topic. And with the serious backing, it’s definitely one to watch.

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May 29, 2007

Google Maps: extreme close up with Street View

Filed under: google, local search, maps, street view — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:41 am

Google today released Street View, allowing users to zoom in to street level in New York, Miami, San Francisco, Denver and Las Vegas. (I can’t help but think Denver was selected to get a dig in at Mapquest.) It’s the greatest thing since… the original Google Maps.

Google Map Street View

Street View allows you to virtually walk along a given street. Amazon’s A9 tried this a couple of years ago, but Google’s attempt is much easier to navigate. A9 rendered sequential pictures of a given block; I always got lost trying to use A9.

Google presents the imagery as a Flash that you can “walk” through. You can turn your head or zoom in and out. You can even turn down a corner onto another street. Street View supports keyboard shortcuts; the left and right arrow pan the view and up/down move you forward and back.

The imagery makes it easy to get a feel for the neighborhood. (Minus the smell of trash and honking of cars.) It’s sufficiently blurry that you can’t make out faces or read license plates. It’s like walking around the city without your glasses.

It’s not yet integrated with the map search. For example, I did a search for “Hummus” and found the business. But I then had to move my little avatar to the business location. Instant teleportation would be nice; I should be dropped in front of the business facing it. At least you don’t have to wait to hail a cab.

Update: Although I couldn’t make out license plates or faces in New York, I was able to see them in the Bay Area. Google did its own imaging in the Bay Area and those images seem to be much clearer.

More on: Google, maps

May 28, 2007

User-created content search comes to Google Maps

Filed under: google, local search, maps, search, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:23 pm

One of the features promised when Google’s My Maps launched was that the content created would be searchable by users.

I stumbled upon this feature in action while searching Maps today.

This map was created by a local bar, showing customers where they can park. Note the warning about parking in the Wachovia lot. (We have vicious tow operators in our neighborhood that circle like vultures.) You won’t get data like this from TeleAtlas or NAVTEQ; this type of content can only be provided by feet on the street.

Google maps parking

To see these results on your maps searches, scroll down to the bottom of the listings and click on the link labeled “See user-created content.” The link doesn’t appear for all searches. I couldn’t find a way to force it for searches where it didn’t appear. It’s early and still buggy; if you do a search, switch to user-generated content and then do another search, it defaults to “official” content for the subsequent search.

In addition to maps created with Google’s My Maps, this also shows results from sites that use KML like and

A few maps that I found: street-food map of Jackson Heights, Dirt Cheap Eats in DC, and Al Capone-related places.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to see a list of map overlays that are available for a given area.

More on: Google, maps

Twittering up some dosas

Filed under: mobile, mobile search, twitter, web 2, web 2.0, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:07 am

Mmm... dosasI was up in New York City over the weekend and got to see my favorite dosa vendor. Thiru Kumar runs NY Dosas, a dosa cart in Washington Square Park. It has good, cheap eats. ($5 for lunch in NYC.)

He’s usually there Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. But it can be hit or miss because of rain, special catering events, etc. The last few times I’ve been to New York, I’ve missed him.

I’ve got Thiru on my speed dial. When I’m in NY and craving a dosa, I give him a call to see if he’s open.

This would be a perfect application for Twitter. Thiru could update his status when he arrives and leaves, no Web site necessary. Just text his state to his Twitter page.

Here’s an interview with Thiru. His cart is also being featured on Rachel Ray’s Tasty Travels.

Street food also seems like a great application for location services like WHERE. Take a map like this street food map of New York from Platial and make it accessible from cell phones.

May 25, 2007

GPS for Blackberry and Calendar come to Google Mobile

Filed under: google, gps, iphone, local search, maps, mobile, mobile search, wireless, wireless data, yellow pages — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:27 pm

Blackberry 8800 with Google Maps GPSGoogle announced GPS support on the Blackberry 8800. This is a huge move. It’s great that a major U.S. carrier, Cingular AT&T, is allowing free access to location data. I would have expected them to disable GPS access.

I love Google Maps Mobile, but the lack of GPS support has been a major turn off. Ever since discovering WHERE, I’ve all but stopped using Google Maps Mobile. It’s much easier to pop open WHERE and find what I’m looking for.

This also highlights a key omission in the iPhone: no GPS support.

Google also released a mobile version of Google Calendar. I keep my personal calendar on Google and this is a welcome addition. Previously, the only way to access Google Calendar on a mobile device was a clunky SMS interface.

More on: Google, wireless.

IMing from your cell with EQO

Filed under: im, instant messaging, mobile, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:47 am

EQO logoEQO launched a new Voice over IP service for cell phones this week. The downloadable software allows you to make cheap international calls from your cell phone. A call from the U.S. to London on EQO costs 2.3c per minute, compared with the 99c per minute your carrier probably charges you.

Although the dialaround service is how they plan to make their money, the more interesting part of the software is the built in IM client. You can use it to chat from your cell phone with buddies on AIM, Google Talk, ICQ, Jabber, MSN Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger.

With the exception of Google Talk, IM has been available on cell phones for years. It’s just been a broken (and expensive) experience. Carriers typically charge $3/month for each service. If you use AIM, MSN and Yahoo!, that’s $9 a month, on top of $10-$15/month in data plan charges. Other methods of IM on mobile devices use SMS hacks that rack up messaging charges with each IM or browser-based services that are notoriously difficult to use.

The free EQO client brings them all together in one clean, easy-to-use interface. Unlike with the standalone solutions, you can chat with multiple buddies on multiple networks at the same time. You still have to pay your carrier for data access, but there is no additional charge for EQO IM.

When it works, it works well. Unfortunately, much of the time, I got connection errors, freezes and other problems. Still, I was able to IM for about an hour yesterday. It’s addictive enough that I need to cut back on my IM. Because the screen is on the whole time I was messaging, I had to recharge my phone twice during the day.

Given that Google Talk currently doesn’t have a mobile offering, this is a a great tool for Google Talk users. Once the bugs get worked out, I will be able to highly recommend it for others.

via Paul Kedrosky

Making voicemail more useful

Filed under: mobile, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:15 am

I was at the airport and saw on my phone’s screen that I missed a call from my friend Wanita. I called her back.

“What do you think?,” she said.

“About what? You called me.”

“Didn’t you listen to my voicemail?”


More often that not, I call people back without listening to voicemail. Voicemail requires me to make a mode shift. I have to call in, listen through a bunch of prompts, wait for the message and then try to write down the key details. This is typically more trouble than it’s worth. I’m not alone; many of my friends do the same.

I’ve recently started testing a service called SpinVox that converts voicemail messages to text. The text then gets converted to an SMS message or email. This is much easier to process. (SimulScribe offers a similar service.)

I’ve written before about the perils of voice recognition. Many voice recognition systems I deal with just aren’t acceptable. This one actually works. The not-so-secret sauce: words that cannot be accurately transcribed by the software are routed to humans who transcribe it.

The result isn’t perfect. There are still typos (names are especially tough), but the text is good enough to get the gist of the message. SpinVox only needs to better than the cryptic misspelled SMS messages that people manage to type out on their phones. And it’s certainly good enough to keep Wanita from yelling at me for not “doing my homework” before I call her back.

Disclosure: The VP of Marketing for SpinVox North America is a friend.

May 23, 2007

Pandora radio goes wireless

Filed under: audio, consumer electronics, media, mp3, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:24 am

P1000083_editedPandora’s Internet radio service is now available on Sprint’s wireless network. Pandora allows you to quickly set up personalized radio stations based on artists and songs you like. The service then plays music it thinks you might like.

I’ve been using Pandora’s free service on the Web for more than a year now. It’s a great way to discover new music.

Pandora on the Go requires that you install an application on your phone. (Do this by going to on your phone’s Web browser.) The application has a clean, simple interface. It even shows cover art for the song that is playing. You can scroll back and forth to give songs a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”.

Sound quality is decent, though not as good as on my iPod. In about thirty minutes of listening, I had two dropouts. You must be within Sprint’s high speed wireless coverage area to listen to music.

The service is modestly priced – $3/month, with no advertising. The first 30 days are free.

Pandora on the Go is a part of a spate of announcements from the company, including compatibility with the Sonos home audio system and a dedicated WiFi device. Pandora has been available for at least a year on the Squeezebox.

As great a service as Pandora is, it faces extinction due to draconian new music licensing fees. Unlike terrestrial radio broadcasters, who pay nothing to the artist when they play a song, Internet broadcasters must pay. (Sirius and XM also pay, but their fee is smaller.)

Pandora’s founder, Tim Westergren, in a Q&A with Newsweek’s Steven Levy:

What would be the effect of the proposed royalty rates on your company? It would be the end of Pandora. And that’s not hyperbole. The real issue is the per-song rate. It’s wildly counterproductive for everybody. It triples our cost, and that’s in a business that already does not have a big margin to it.

Pandora on the Go faces an additional challenge: battery life. I listened to Pandora for about 30 minutes on my cell phone this morning while working out. Because the screen and wireless radio are on the whole time, this depletes the battery more than the talking on the phone for 30 minutes. The battery life on my Samsung A900 is pathetic enough as it is. I need to preserve it for actually talking to people.

Still, it’s a compelling, low cost application. I can see popping into it for 5-10 minutes when I’m bored.

via TechCrunch

May 21, 2007

Search your neighborhood on Google Maps

Filed under: google, local search, maps, yelp — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:48 pm

You can now search Google Maps by neighborhood in 50 U.S. cities. Some sample searches: “bars in adams morgan dc” “museums upper east side, ny” “pizza portero hill sf“.

I’ve long complained that ZIP codes are a terrible crutch used by programmers. Neighborhoods are a much more human way to search.

Google neighborhood search

Neighborhood definitions are fluid — even locals typically don’t agree on where one neighborhood begins and another ends. Yelp has been doing neighborhood searches for a while; I prefer their tighter borders to Google’s. Compare Google’s results for “bars in adams morgan dc” with Yelp’s results for a similar search.

Another nice touch on Yelp: the ability to narrow results based on human-friendly distances (within 4 blocks, 10 blocks, walking, biking, driving).

More on: Google, maps

Recruiting in the 21st century

Filed under: recruiting — Rakesh Agrawal @ 5:49 pm

Saw this in the window of a vacant storefront. It’s the only indication of what is going into the space.

Recruiting in the 21st century

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