Mixed blessing, double-edged sword, backhanded compliment… whatever metaphor you choose, having Google take an interest in your vertical space is not an unalloyed boon. On the one hand, it’s a confirmation that your space is officially hot. On the other, it’s a signal that you can’t slow down, and in fact you’d better have some gas left in the reserve tank in order to stay ahead of the competition.
That’s the situation video search engine Blinkx.tv finds itself in, now that Google has opened its Video Store beta. Apart from all its other components, Google’s initiative signals an intention to move from being a simple search engine for video content elsewhere (although very little about searching for video is simple) to becoming a portal for actually accessing that content. The shelves of the Google Video Store hold a mix of commercial video (TV episodes, NBA games and movie trailers) and user-generated content including video blogs; users can download those clips, some for free and some for fee, to their PCs or to mobile players, including Video iPods and Sony PSP game consoles.
In that sense, Blinkx.tv was there before the folks in the Googleplex, with an announcement in mid-December that it was launching Blinkx.tv To Go, a service that will allow users to download video blogs to their iPods. And since Blinkx is built on a transcript search platform that uses voice recognition to look beyond the text description of a video at the actual spoken content, users can search for any video that mentions a word or phrase and come up with all the relevant content. They can also save those search terms as a “channel”, so that future content using those terms will automatically be saved and uploaded to their devices and viewed as a single video stream.
This is one of those things that are not simple about video search. Video content on the Web uses a number of different and incompatible formats, so that anyone looking to download and transfer that content on their own would have to convert, for example, .wav and .mov files to the Apple format. That’s more work than all but the geekiest of video fans will find useful.
“It’s about converting the Web video experience into more of a TV-style experience,” says Suranga Chandratillake, co-founder and CTO of parent Blinkx. (the company also offers desktop search applications.) “We started Blinkx.tv as a video search engine, and that’s fine, because it’s a concept everyone understands. But video is actually very different from standard Web content: you can have four or five Web pages open at once and you can kind of skim-read them, but you can’t do that with video. It’s a much more linear format, and usually mixes information and entertainment.”
Blinkx.tv’s aim is to become a sort of “remote control” for Internet television, Chandratillake says, a unified controlling mechanism that will let users access video and audio content (Blinkx searches podcasts too) across the Web and over a range of devices, from desktop to handheld to PC-connected television sets. “When you do that, what you watch and when and where you watch it changes, and that leads to a content explosion. And you need a single device to lead you through that fog of choices. That’s what Blinkx is building.”
Thriving in the Internet video space means more than just building a better navigation system, however; it’s also a content game. Big brands such as Google may seem to have a leg up on striking deals with providers of mainstream entertainment content—and whether the Google/ AOL deal struck last December will result in a flood of Time Warner content remains to be seen. But for a smaller player, Blinkx.tv has actually been very aggressive in the last year about signing up content partners. Some are sizeable and recognizable, such as Reuters, The New York Times, Fox News, CNN, Bloomberg and BBC News.
Because these big players, and many second-tier ones such as the E! Channel, want to retain control of their content, in most cases Blinkx.tv links to the videos that are hosted in their site archives. But other content, specifically all that user-generated stuff, can be uploaded by producers and hosted on Blinkx.tv’s servers. The result is that much of the video blog and user-produced content pops up and starts running in Flash almost the minute a visitor’s cursor runs over the thumbnail. Very user-friendly.
Blinkx.tv has also made it something of a mission to make content deals that bring to the Internet videos that may not be sexy but are undeniably useful, at least to niche audiences. In November 2005, the company signed a deal to put online and make searchable hundreds of hours of audio material from the University Channel and from institutions such as Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and Cambridge universities, among others. Blinkx.tv also makes available hundreds of short interview clips from Meet the Author, an interactive video marketing and book promotion service.
Divergence from mainstream content is both a strategy and a philosophy for Blinkx.tv. “I’ve charged our business development team to go out and be extremely creative about finding content,” Chandratillake says. “Users can look for all kinds of things—obviously for breaking news from Reuters or information about HBO shows [both of which Blinkx.tv offers], but also for all kinds of bizarre, esoteric niche things. We already watch current shows and current news in the media; Blinkx.tv has to be a broader catalog in order to add value to Internet video.”
He points out that when reports of the Google/AOL deal mentioned “classic” TV shows that would be made available to Google Video, he didn’t recognize a single title. “As a Brit who moved to the State only two or three years ago, they just weren’t part of my background,” he says. “Same with videos on iTunes: They’re 10 or 15 series that are very popular right now, and that’s fine. But the great thing about the Internet is that it lets you create video that’s really unique and perhaps crazy and then share it with others who are interested in the same thing.”
In that light, Chandratillake says, the big content deals and big media alliances that grab headlines don’t pose a real problem for Blinkx.tv right now. Google’s deals with CBS, iTunes offering ABC shows, even AOL’s purchase of video search engine Truveo earlier this week: They all serve only to validate the Internet video space, according to him.
“The big deals always going to happen, but the returns are in a sense very small because they involve the same audiences who are watching the same content now on TV,” he says. “The real added value, and the real growth, comes in making available all the new content that the Internet has enabled for the first time.” Not accidentally, that wild and wooly user-generated content also requires a nimble navigation system—something Blinkx’s voice-recognition platform can handle uniquely well.
As for revenue, Chandratillake says that while the big players will pilot both fee-paid and ad-supported models, advertising will be the name of the game for his company. While some of those small content creators Blinkx is reaching out to might be interested in charging for their work, most are too small to set up any mechanism for taking payments—which makes moot the kind of fee-splitting deals that Google can strike. On the other hand, Blinkx.tv has an opportunity to monetize the audiences those video makers draw.
“We’re very much a search company, in that our business is knowing about small pieces of information widely dispersed over the Web- relatively valueless on its own, but of great value when pulled together,” Chandratillake says. “But as a focal point for these searchers, we can aggregate ads from various sources.” Last October the company signed a pact with the MIVA network for geo-targeted, context-related ads that will be shown both to users of the Blinkx desktop search toolbar and to searchers on Blinkx.tv. Those toolbar ads should appear early this year, with the video search ads soon after.
Chandratillake says Blinkx will have other ad deals forthcoming, perhaps as soon as this month. And while these early ads will rely on rich media and display messages, the prospect of adding short video ads to Blinkx.tv-delivered content is well within the realm of possibility.
“It’s very much like the Google AdSense network, using search as the gel between the publisher and the advertiser,” he says. “Users set up their intent with their search terms, we serve up the content matching those terms, and then we might splice in quick ads also related to those terms and collect a fee from the advertiser.”
It would have to be done carefully: How long you can make ads and whether you position them before or after the clip or both, only focus groups can tell. But there’s no inherent obstacle to video ads in either the technology or the business model, according to Chandratillake. And being smaller and more flexible than the big video aggregators might actually give Blinkx an edge when it comes to testing video ads.
“I don’t think users object to ads per se,” he says. “I think they resent be over-advertised or seeing irrelevant ads. Google and Yahoo! have shown in search that if you offer advertising in the right way, it’s perfectly palatable to people.”