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How Answers.com became Google's default dictionary

February 4, 2010 |  7:30 am

Bob-rosenscheinAfter the world's largest search engine replaced the "definition" links to Answers.com with its Google-branded dictionary in December, the encyclopedia aggregator says it hasn't seen any dramatic effect from the change.

For nearly five years, those links -- at the top right of most search queries -- pointed to the relevant Answers.com definition page.

We noted in our post unveiling Google Dictionary on Dec. 3 that the company that was probably hurt most by the change was Answers.com. Maybe so, but it wasn't a significant blow, Answers.com Chief Executive Bob Rosenschein said.

"Frankly, it didn't affect our top or bottom line any," Rosenschein said on the phone recently. "I haven't lost sleep over it."

By the time Google pulled the plug on Answers.com's top billing on search engine listings, the definition links accounted for only about 4% of the site's overall traffic, he said. It's a sizable number of hits but not detrimental. Shortly after Answers.com started in January 2005, those links accounted for the vast majority of its traffic.

Google contacted Rosenschein in advance of the dictionary switch. Before Google pushed the button, Rosenschein said he broke the bad news to investors of his publicly traded company in a conference call. The stock took a sizable dip in November but recovered somewhat in January.

"I wasn't shocked when it ended," Rosenschein said. "I knew at some point it would make sense for them to do it. ... How many companies do they really have a separate page for that's powered by another company?"

Good question.

For Google to give preferential treatment to any one site is unusual, to say the least. Google's philosophy with its search algorithms is driven by statistics and data, going so far as to refuse to manually edit results.

Then how did Answers.com score such a sweet deal less than a month after it launched?

Rosenschein approached an executive at Google with the idea. After exchanging a few friendly e-mails, Answers.com scored one of the cushiest deals on the Web, contributing to its explosive growth. Rosenschein says Answers.com is now Comscore's 17th-biggest website, and Alexa lists it in the top 50 U.S. sites.

"They liked what we had," Rosenschein said. "They saw us primarily as a dictionary -- a very rich one."

Even now, search engines -- mostly Google -- send Answers.com the majority of its traffic through standard results pages, not dedicated "definition" links.

While Answers.com's encyclopedia aggregator has more than 250 sources, the site has since moved in other directions. "At this point, our company is no longer only reference-based," Rosenschein said. "Answers.com is about user-generated content too."

A Google spokesman gave no specific reasoning for the relatively sudden change in December. The Google Dictionary product has been live since 2007, the spokesman wrote in an e-mail.

"With our change last December, no new features were added," the spokesman wrote. "Google Dictionary content is primarily definitions crawled from the Web in many languages, supplemented by some licensed monolingual and bilingual dictionaries."

For the Answers.com agreement, Google had stipulations. The search giant wanted only dictionary words, excluding Answers.com's encyclopedic sources ranging from pop culture icons to international locales. Neither side pushed for a contract.

"It was a completely gentlemanly relationship," Rosenschein said. "Doing a contract would have removed their flexibility if they one day decided to remove us."

Besides, "What could we have given them?" Rosenschein asked. "A cut of the revenue to that page? It would have been immaterial to them."

-- Mark Milian
twitter.com/markmilian

Photo credit: Yaniv Golan via Flickr

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