Search underdog Blekko gets serious, makes major improvements (exclusive)

underdog

With 1.5 million unique users and 70 to 80 million queries per month, search upstart Blekko isn’t big enough to sit at the adult search table with Google, Yahoo or Microsoft. But don’t tell that to Blekko.

Fed up with the prevalence of spam in search results, Blekko launched in late October 2010 as a search engine with an opinion. It takes a stance on good and bad sites and attempts to deliver only high quality results from the good sites. It does so with user-curated slashtags, a proprietary feature that restricts results to a set of editor-vetted sites.

A year later, the Silicon Valley-based upstart is ready to be taken seriously and has donned an adult look to show the world that it’s all grown up now. Blekko is releasing a number of dramatic improvements Wednesday to better compete with the big boys of search. Most noticeable is a complete overall of its user interface and the addition of more auto-firing slashtags for more spam-free results. Also significant is the new index technology and computing infrastructure powering the experience.

“We’re improving the engine under the hood … but coupling it with a shiny new upgrade to the [user interface] that really makes the site experience slick,” CEO Rich Skrenta said in an exclusive interview with VentureBeat.

The company has scrapped its former “kitchen sink UI” in favor of something more traditional, and added a fresh coat of paint.

“It’s just a clearer look,” founder Mike Markson said. “It’s a state of art type of UI that shows off our features, makes for a comfortable setting, saves time on search and is easy on the eyes.”

“There’s an expectation for a certain UI,” Skrenta said of Blekko’s more Google and Bing-like look. “If you come to Blekko and do a search, we want you to be happy with the result quality and not be distracted by the UI.”

To keep you happy, Blekko is now auto-firing slashtags for 500 categories, and working toward support for 1,000 categories. The auto-firing slashtags are automatically appended to your queries — no extra work required on your part — to filter out junk results.

The least noticeable but most marked improvement is the one that could keep you coming back to Blekko for all your queries. The startup has doubled the size of its index so that it covers even long-tail queries to satisfy the searcher who already knows what she’s looking for.

“It’s a fresher index, it’s a larger index,” Skrenta said, “with the addition of the new hardware, we were basically able to double the size of it.”

“For a search engine startup, you really can’t win at [long-tail] queries, but you can lose at them,” Skrenta explained. “We were not doing a fantastic job at long-tail queries previously, and this was partially a function of not having enough hardware to be able to crawl the web as deeply as we needed to. … We’ve made substantial operations investments, doubled our server count, and the relevance technology we’re using is basically best-of-breed at this point.”

Blekko believes the changes will finally make its service a viable search alternative that can stand tall next to Google and Bing and satisfy every searcher’s queries, whatever they may be.

It’s a true underdog story, to be sure, but with $30 million in funding from September, Blekko has bought itself time to turn unbelievers into converts.

“We’re the first search startup to actually be around a year after launch, having lived to tell about it,” Markson said.

[Image via dno1967b/Flickr]