Croal: A Search Engine of Our Own

How many times a day do you Google—I mean, use a search engine? The ritual remains the same: type in some keywords, hit enter and then scroll through a list of links, hoping that what you're looking for is on the first or second page of results. Still haven't found what you want by page three? Modify your keywords and start over. By the third or fourth consecutive attempt, you start to wonder, does this thing that I'm looking for even exist, if Google—I mean, a search engine—can't find it? The difficulty stems from the basic way that many search engines operate, by using the behavior of the majority as a proxy to help determine what you're most likely looking for. But what if you're decidedly in the minority? That's the impetus for the Charlotte, N.C.-based RushmoreDrive, a new Web site targeting black Internet users. The site includes news and employmentrelated options, but its core feature is also its most fascinating: a search engine that tailors its results to the proclivities of the African-American community. "RushmoreDrive is the one place where the black community is actually the majority online," says CEO Johnny Taylor.

What makes all this possible is a technique Taylor calls "geo-biasing." Because RushmoreDrive and the search company Ask.com are both owned by Barry Diller's holding company IAC/InterActiveCorp (Diller himself is a board member of The Washington Post Company, which owns NEWSWEEK), Taylor and his team obtained five years of Ask.com's search info. That information was then overlaid onto a "heat map" of the United States that showed the concentration of African–Americans in various ZIP codes. With these data, the site has been able to tailor search results to its audience. For example, when users in an area with a large black population, like Atlanta, do a search for "Whitney," they are more likely to be looking for the singer Whitney Houston or the civil-rights activist Whitney M. Young than for, say, the Whitney Museum, which might be choice No. 1 for users in an area with a large white population, like Boise, Idaho. By using this technique, the folks at RushmoreDrive were able to provide search results on page one that might end up on page 10 on Google—while still delivering a broad array of links that would be typical of a mainstream search engine.

Taylor makes it clear that he didn't just dream up RushmoreDrive. Rather, it emerged from a number of focus groups in which black Internet users were very specific about what they were searching for—and they didn't want a black search engine. What they wanted was "Google-plus": a search engine that recognized that they were African-American without assuming that they were interested only in African-American topics. "Search is imperfect. But the closer you can get to figuring out what a group wants, the better you are," says Taylor, who previously ran human resources for IAC. What's cool is that this technique could be applied to other identity groups—women, Latinos, gays and lesbians, etc. And RushmoreDrive, which has already filed patent applications based on its process, is actively exploring these other possibilities.

When I asked Taylor about the most surprising thing he'd observed since last month's launch, he said it was the extent of Rushmore-Drive's popularity with whites, who have used it to research everything from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. to the recipes their nannies used as they were growing up. Sounds great, right? Not exactly. Because geo-biasing was intended only to kick things off, with the actual search behavior of black people replacing it over time, a significant nonblack user base could throw off RushmoreDrive's accuracy. "That is something we'll have to deal with," says Taylor. "But it's a good problem to have." Right on.