Offline data may be the next generation of search

When we talk about next generation search, thought leaders assess better means of indexing images, video and audio. Talk moves to searching from devices beyond the desktop, from cell phones to TV remote controls. But rarely do we ever go beyond the online constraints to understand the most valuable of all search data: the offline search.

Humor me for a minute when I say that the keyword data is but a slice of a consumer’s daily wants and needs and, at best, is a proxy for every physical movement made throughout the day. For those who are obsessed about upstream traffic, downstream traffic, time on site and so on, consider how interesting it would be to literally know where someone was before they came to your offline store. Understanding the next action, how long one dawdled in a single place or whether he just went home for the evening is a very valuable physical trail of wants and needs. That is, if we could track it.

Thanks to SenseNetworks, we are getting closer to this model. In short, the firm sizes up offline behavior by collecting vast amounts of location data from GPS partners. Whereas most marketers still struggle to develop mobile marketing platforms, SenseNetworks would rather use the mobile phone as a data collection device. In speaking with Greg Skibiski and Christine Lemke, two of the four co-founders, I learned that roughly 80% of all cell phones now have GPS, and that multiple data sources, such as mobile application providers for taxis, abound. Of course, all of this data is anonymous.

In addition to monetizing real time location data for financial services firms, SenseNetworks has launched a consumer application, CitySense. The application was born out of a desire to demo the power of this type of technology, as well as provide consumers something in exchange for their data. Having built the platform and aggregated the data, a nightlife social discovery application for Blackberry users (and soon for iPhone users), was a logical choice.

Skibiski quickly answered any data privacy and portability concerns. “If you are walking around with CitySense, you can go in and choose to delete the last 24 hours off our servers, if you’d like,” he said. Unlike most marketers, SenseNetworks prefers anonymity. Skibiski goes as far as suggesting that attempts to map names and data are what hinder social network advertising from taking off. For him, the bias error experienced in a social network can be quickly resolved by simply collecting data from a GPS device. From here, true similarity metrics are derived.

Another error of social networks is that they assume that users want to meet everyone like them. The truth, says Skibiski, is that most people don’t want to necessarily know the 10,000 people who are most like them, but they do want to know what these 10,000 people are doing.

He also points out that what someone is doing right now is probably the result of seven previous actions. The decision to head to Circuit City and then to Best Buy was probably made much earlier in the day. Observing the physical trail throughout the day is akin to looking to the string of queries that a searcher typed in throughout the day. (If you’ve never looked at your clickstream data or search history, it’s a good reminder of how much data you are providing the big players.)

So what is next for SenseNetworks? Currently the firm is focusing on crunching this data for the financial services sector, exploring predictability and providing the consumer app as a good deed. My guess is that a large chunk of time will also be devoted to answering the requests from the savvy direct marketers seeking to make this data available to a larger market.


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