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CEO Takes a Gamble on LookSmart

With the gamble he’s taking, Dave Hills is going to look smart, or he isn’t.

The president/CEO of LookSmart has put in place a tripod recovery strategy for a search engine once troubled, like many of its ilk, by fraudulent traffic through robotic clicks. Vertical search is one element of that turnaround, syndicating technology is another and a paid listings ad network is the third.

“I’ve got this from being vilified to now we have a shot and it’s down to our ability to execute it — and then assuming I execute properly, we’ll be successful,” Hills said.

Hills joined LookSmart in October 2004 after a year as president of 24/7 Real Media North America. From 2001 to 2003, he was chief operating officer and president of sales of About.com and Sprinks owner About Inc. Before that, he spent 21 years at Cox Enterprises, where he placed newspapers online in the 1990s on the Prodigy service.

So Hills has online credentials going back a decade, working on Internet brands that were among the stars of the dot-com heyday. LookSmart also once was among the elite until market forces picked winners among them.

Things have changed since Hills took over. Traffic from January to September is up 83 percent to 5.7 million unique users, from 3.1 million at the start of the year, according to comScore Media Metrix. His bets may be paying off.

Take vertical search. The San Francisco-based company has launched 181 sites in 13 categories like autos, cities, education, health, food, money, sports, style, music and recreation. Within those categories are sites that enable more tailored searches based on consumer demographics, supported by new ad units for advertisers.

Some of those search sites are www.looksmartjrhigh.com, a homework helper site for ‘tweens; www.looksmarthighschool.com for teens; www.looksmartcollege.com for college students; and www.looksmartmom.com for moms on the go.

A major competitive differentiator for LookSmart is the way its sites are configured. The company’s intention is to offer key information for passions, needs and repetitive tasks encountered daily. So, for example, visitors to a typical LookSmart site can find what they want, save what they need and share what they like. Those three functionalities are spelled out on the pages. Even registration is kept simple: only an e-mail address and password to create an account.

“I don’t believe in personalization,” Hills said. “I believe in customization — light-touch stuff.”

Such vertical sites that combine LookSmart’s crawler with its content indicate that drill-down search is the way of the future.

“This medium is going to verticalize and fractionalize like everyone else,” Hills said. “If Google over a term of time is going to be the CBS, then I’m going to be the Turner Broadcasting System.”

Syndicating LookSmart’s technology is another growth strategy. LookSmart’s technology is supporting search engine Ask Jeeves’ AdCenter, for example.

“Over the course of time, publishers will want more direct relationships with advertisers and use networks around them to backfill,” Hills said.

Finally, there is LookSmart’s paid listings ad network. Hills “cut the company in half to get rid of fraud.” He made sure the mentality changed for good and went public with a mea culpa for the past and a promise to maintain integrity.

“If you get a clean ad network with improving ROIs for advertisers, the cost-per-clicks will go up and we’ll gain more external distribution,” he said.

Mickey Alam Khan covers Internet marketing campaigns and e-commerce, agency news as well as circulation for DM News and DMNews.com. To keep up with the latest developments in these areas, subscribe to our daily and weekly e-mail newsletters by visiting www.dmnews.com/newsletters

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