Net Firm Uses Just the Facts to Hold Web Portals' Traffic

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BOSTON -- Fact City Inc., a young Internet firm that offers itself as a fact-finding alternative to search engines, said this week it is racking up deals with database companies as it places its question-and-answer service on more portal sites.


And even though a quick look at their technology indicates the company might not yet have filled out all the facts it needs, Fact City has a powerful pitch for high-volume content sites that want to hold their visiting traffic for longer periods of time.


"All those guys make their money from page views," said Fact City president and founder Eric Ziering. "The longer they keep people on their site and the more pages they display, the more ads that they show and the more revenue they make."


The business plan is simple. Fact City arranges partnerships with database companies across various topic categories, runs technology that can tap those databases for answers to direct questions asked from Web sites and sells the question-answering service to Web portals for a cut of the ad revenue they get off pages bearing the answers. Those answers can be in either text or table formats.


Last week, Fact City announced partnerships with four data providers: TV Guide, Billboard, music database Muze and Internet Movie Database. The companies all made their information troves available to Fact City. Those pacts add to data deals with restaurant, travel, sports and demographics firms, among others.


The company also was slated to announce that Fox Sports would carry the question-answering service on a Major League Baseball section of its Web site. Fact City went live answering college hoops questions on ESPN.com in conjunction with the NCAA tournament last month.


Visitors to the men's college basketball section of ESPN.com could enter roundball questions at StatSearch, a part of the site powered by Fact City but branded for ESPN. StatSearch encourages visitors to enter simple factual questions such as "Which team had the most wins in 1998?" Answers pop up immediately without whisking visitors away to another site, an important feature for ad-driven content sites that want to hold their traffic.


But as technology that must cope with the vagaries of the ways different people ask different questions, the system is not without its flaws. DM News tested the service independently and found the database sometimes had a hard time coming up with the right answer.


When asked how many titles the University of North Carolina had won, StatSearch replied only with UNC's win-loss record from last year. When asked who, meaning which player, had the highest free throw percentage this year, the service answered with the team with the best percentage rather than the individual player.


Ziering explained the problem by noting that the service on ESPN uses a database with only four years' worth of information. Presumably such problems will be minimized as Fact City makes agreements with more, deeper data partners.


"We actually try to design the system so we don't force people to ask the question in a particular way," Ziering said. "We look at all the parts of their question and see if we can find the [answer] that looks like the best match given all the words that appear in that question."


The executive said the service, which can be set up in as little as 24 hours, has been received well among portal sites. Since sites pay out a portion of the ad revenue from answer pages, CPMs they wouldn't have gotten otherwise, they feel they have nothing to lose. Ziering would not elaborate on the percentage of the CPM that goes to Fact City except to say it varies broadly.


Agreements with data firms vary as well. Firms benefit from Fact City's service by getting links back to their sites, free online branding, and light market research. Fact City tracks which portals are the heaviest users of each data firm's information, which data tables are used most, and which prompt follow-up questions.
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