Goby, with New iPhone App, Shifts Focus from Activity Search to Mobile Recommendations

Please…not yet another recommendation engine for telling me where I should eat, what clothes to buy, or which places to visit on my trips. Didn’t StyleFeeder get acquired by Time Inc. last year? Didn’t Where just get bought by PayPal? But I guess that’s why startups keep trying to innovate with recommendations—if they do it right, there will be a big payout coming.

OK, well, having a cute fish logo doesn’t hurt either. Last Tuesday, Boston-based Goby released a new, overhauled version of its iPhone app, and it represents an important shift for the three-year-old startup. That’s right—Goby, which started in 2008 as a “deep Web” search engine focused on helping consumers find events and activities near them—is now going hard after recommendations.

“It’s a big shift away from search and browse,” says Mark Watkins, the company’s co-founder and CEO.

Goby already had a mobile app on iPhone and Android devices, but the new app’s emphasis is on understanding consumers’ preferences and showing them a short list of relevant activities, instead of just helping them search through long lists. (Goby made the change in part because of user feedback, but you can still search in the app as well.) Before last week’s release, Watkins said the company had some 750,000 mobile-app downloads, and that its user base was split about 50-50 between mobile and Web. Reached by e-mail yesterday, Watkins says the new app had about 70,000 downloads in the past week, and that about half of the new users have created personalized “fun feeds” (more on that in a minute). Overall, not a bad start for the new Goby app.

Mobile has been a big focus at the 10-person startup over the past nine months. Goby, along with a lot of other companies, seems to have adapted quickly to the reality that mobile is a better business opportunity for its technology than the Web. “People are hungry for mobile apps, and advertisers are hungry to reach them,” Watkins says.

The new app is all about showing people five to 10 activities that interest them, Watkins says. Goby scans users’ Facebook profiles and uses semantic text analysis to create a “topic map” of things people like. The categories include sporting events, live music, museums, food and drink, and so forth. Goby also has access to a huge database of events and activities, culled from a variety of sites around the Web. By personalizing your own feed, you can do things like get alerts for heavy-metal acts playing in Worcester, MA, or jazz artists coming through Boston. The app also makes it easy to share the info with your social network through Facebook and Twitter, Watkins says.

The technology sounds simple—but it’s not. One issue is that semantic analysis and deep Web mining gets tricky if the information you’re looking for is too broad in scope (see Twine.com, which was absorbed by Seattle-based Evri last year). “We’re trying to solve a very specific problem,” Watkins says—namely, finding and recommending relevant local events and activities.

Goby has raised $7.5 million to date from investors including Kepha Partners and Flybridge Capital Partners. The company will be looking to raise more money later this year, Watkins says. In terms of revenue streams, it sounds like Goby is pursuing a couple of advertising models—one based on brand advertising and deals (akin to display ads), and another based on local performance-based pay-per-click ads (syndicated through sites like Citysearch).

Lastly, I asked Watkins—a veteran of New England tech icons Parametric Technology Corporation (PTC) and Endeca—for the top lessons he learned at his previous companies, and how he’s applying them to Goby.

“Hire the best people you can,” he says. “We’re excruciatingly rigorous about hiring good people. If you have great people, everything is easy. If you don’t have great people, everything is hard.” Also, he adds, “don’t get hung up on what the competition is doing.”

That last bit seems especially important, given how crowded the world of mobile apps has become in local search, deals, and recommendations. We’ll be watching to see how Goby continues to differentiate itself from the pack.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Editor in Chief. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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