SEM is so powerful, so successful, that there’s a relentless quest to find the “next search.” Attendi, a startup that launched today at the Demo conference, applies search to instant messaging conversations.
To join Attendi, you create a profile that can include blogs, keywords, favorite web sites and your social networks; the idea is to position yourself as an expert on whatever you want — cooking, motorcycles, SEM. Automatically generated tag clouds attached to profiles show what else you’re up to speed on.
Other people can come to the site and search for experts who are logged in, then request a chat. Your profile is rated as more relevant to a topic, the more people chat with you. In addition, Attendi indexes all the chats and makes them searchable. So, even if someone isn’t online, you can read what they said to someone else.
For now, Attendi will show Google ads on the site, but the company is planning a “live ad unit” that will show a banner ad only when an advertiser is on hand to engage in a chat.
B2B or B2C advertisers who now use search might want the opportunity to lurk online, waiting to answer customer queries. Or, will they?
It seems to me that Attendi will compete with all the other click-to-call and live-person services and, eventually, itself. There are several other such services, which don’t seem to be revenue rockets. Ingenio has offered Pay Per Call ads that show up against search results since May 2006. People can click on the ad to initiate a phone call; advertisers can set time parameters for the ads. Ingenio grew out of Keen.com, which was very similar to Attendi in that experts could have an online presence and solicit people to pay for their expertise. MSN adCenter also lets advertisers buy dayparts, so they can be on hand when search ads drive phone calls to their businesses. And then, there’s Yahoo Answers (and the failed Google Answers), where the mostly uninformed ask each other questions.
Drew Rayman, founder and CEO, said the Attendi difference is that it preserves these person-to-person interactions.
Except, as Attendi archives more of these chats, people won’t have to chat, they’ll be able to read transcripts. The things is, the more stuff that’s searchable, the harder it is to find anything useful — and that may extend to Attendi’s chat archives. On the other hand, a speed-read of an expert’s chat logs could help you decide whether she’s worth chatting with. The more specific and arcane your question, the more likely it is that you might want to chat with a real person.
Rayman gave the example of someone wanting to know how to adjust spices in a Cajun recipe. “I could search for hours, but really I want to talk to a cook. If you can find people with life experience in the exact thing you’re looking … this is an immediate opportunity to get exactly what you’re looking for on the fly.”
One huge issue for Attendi is distribution. Most people still search on search engines, and more than 60 percent use Google. As Yahoo and MSN have found, it’s extremely difficult to get people to try new search services.
Another potential problem, evidenced by the demos on Attendi.com, is the convention of IM conversation: terse, extremely casual and disjointed. Long, thoughtful texts “belong,” we feel, on blogs or in email. There’s also the ADD aspect of chat; it’s interruptive, so we seldom drop everything to attend to it. If I type faster than you — or if you’re also participating in three other chats — I may get down four or five thoughts before you finally respond to the first question.
Here’s a sample Attendi conversation, supposedly about “modern dance.”
Terilios: Hi Benny! I am new to Manhattan and saw that you know about dancing
Terilios: do you know the best Venue to see modern dance performances?
bjs256: Yep, I’ve been dancing in NYC for a few years.
bjs256: Yeah, you should check out shows at the Joyce (joyce.org).
terilios: Great! What kind of dancing do you do?
bjs256: They also have a smaller SoHo theater.
bjs256: Mostly modern dance.
bjs256: Well, I gotta run.
bjs256: See you.
Rayman hopes that the same people who stay up all night writing thoughtful blog posts or answering newbie questions on forums will want to add chat to their repertoires. Maybe, but where’s the money in that?