Kosmix's new approach to search gets $20M

Kosmix, a search startup that automatically builds pages about any topic, has raised a $20 million in new funding led by Time Warner. That brings the Mountain View, Calif. startup’s total backing to $55 million — pretty impressive, especially for an ad-driven company. It’s also launching a redesigned version of the Kosmix site into beta testing.

Initially, the idea of yet another search engine seemed silly, but the concept has grown on me. Kosmix basically hits a sweet spot somewhere between Google and Mahalo. Like Mahalo, it doesn’t try to provide definitive search rankings, but rather gathers the most useful online information and resources about a specific topic. The idea is that you visit Kosmix (or Mahalo) when you want to explore something a little more deeply instead of finding a specific result. Unlike Mahalo, Kosmix doesn’t pay people to build those pages, using algorithms to automatically generate them. That means Kosmix literally has a page for any query, but there isn’t always much there.

The key, says founder Anand Rajaraman, is that Kosmix uses a sophisticated taxonomy for classifying each query and determining which information modules are most appropriate. For example, if I bring up the page for television show Gossip Girl, I get an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry, thumbnail images of YouTube videos, links to The New York Times Book Review (uh, what?) and more. In some cases, you can even get links to the Google and Mahalo results.

Earlier, the company built sites about specific “vertical” topics — health, automobiles and travel. The RightHealth site has been a hit, accounting for many of Kosmix’s 11 million monthly visitors, but the RigthAutos and RightTrips sites are being folded into the home site. Kosmix’s strategy is all about the central site now, Rajaraman says, but RightHealth is too successful to shut down. The main site launched without much fanfare in June, and with the facelift, it now offers more modules.

So what makes Kosmix worth the investment? Well, 11 million visitors is nothing to scoff at. Plus, Kosmix’s ad model — which will roll out next year — is intriguing. Mixed in with the links and media that Kosmix pulls from around the web will be sponsored modules tailored to different topics (for example, a module could come up anytime you entered a food-related query). Kosmix could charge based on how extensively users engage with those modules.

Kosmix will also experiment with customization in the coming year, such as personalized Kosmix home pages and the ability to prioritize certain kinds of modules.

Previous investors Accel, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Dag Ventures also participated in the new funding, as did Ed Zander, former chairman and chief executive of Motorola.

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