Fwix’s Shirazi: Layering Location on Top of the Web

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Hyperlocal search database Fwix made news last week when it announced a new back-end product called Geotagger that will allow publishers to  easily tag their Web pages with locations — in effect allowing them to create a layer of precise location information on top of their content, and giving them another method to index their information by, making it more relevant to users and to advertisers. The company is partnering with NBC to roll out the service onto the network’s local news Web sites.

Street Fight visited Fwix’s San Francisco offices last week and caught up with the company’s CEO, Darian Shirazi, who shared his thoughts about the evolving role of location-based services in our daily lives — and the growing opportunities they are providing for local advertisers.

Where does Fwix fit into the competitive landscape in hyperlocal?
I continually think of ourselves as a search company and a local search company. Realistically, it starts out about in 2009 — we were founded in late 2008 — when we were sort of thinking about what is the future of search and asking “What is it that people are going to be doing with search in the future? Is it going to be Google and is Google going to be the way that people find active information when they want to find something?”

We knew that all devices would be location-enabled. That was the key factor. We would look at the growth of devices and why devices were growing, and the truth was there were a lot of extra features that people just didn’t think were that important when they were designing phones before. They actually are very important, and the idea that the phone has GPS in it was a really big game-changer in my opinion. Just the ability to have that API endpoint for a developer that’s building something for the phone to have access to where the phone is. That fundamental change that Apple introduced [with the iPhone] was a really big deal. That changed the way in which devices were viewed, or the way in which we interacted with the web as location became this new dimension.

We thought that location would be the biggest component [in future search] in that the search query in the future would be not a keyword — it would be where the phone is or where the user is, and search engines would have to get good at pushing information to people based on where they were and not based on what they said they wanted.

Google talks a lot about contextual relevance as their way of explaining this phenomenon that we realized when we were thinking about this. We said, “Well, is this something that Google could do? Could Google build a search index or an index that would push information to you based on where you were that was interesting and relevant?” It turns out that we felt they couldn’t, mainly because they were a big company or because they didn’t really innovate fast enough, or because they were so dependent on keyword that they couldn’t really return information based on location.

We think that the future of search is search without search. It’s really where am I and show me stuff that’s important to me about where I am and that’s really powerful.

So, we said, “What if we were to build a platform that was entirely location-based — where any developer, media company, or end user could come to the index and just get information about that location and have it ranked by what was nearby and relevant?”

Where do you get all the information from?
We call for it, just like Google does — but we then read for content and we extract proper nouns from the content that are places, or we extract addresses, or we extract any piece of location information and then we geo-tag it. So, the idea that we can build this index that was so focused around location and that was dependent entirely on location meant that we could become the search engine for the phone. We could become the search engine for the future of the devices that are out there. That’s really what we are and what we’re striving to be. We think that the future of search is search without search. It’s really where am I and show me stuff that’s important to me about where I am and that’s really powerful. I mean, you’re walking down the street and you see a crash that happens three blocks away, you get notified. That’s really important.

How do you then use this technology to then target local advertising?
We believe that with the advent of daily deals and with the advent of those types of monetization methods, we can actually better target daily deals to the right people on the right pages because we know what those pages are about. We know what places are mentioned on any URL on the Web, so we can target deals to the right pages.

Do you see this search-without-searching phenomenon happening on iPads and other devices in the future, or mostly on mobile phone?
That consumption is going to come on the phone, and then tablets, and then third will be PC. Don’t forget that HTML 5 is a huge innovation in terms of location services available on PCs. I mean, the idea that you can get the exact location of that computer with HTML files and APIs is great. I mean, that’s something that you can do today or things that we do.

So, as people convert their browsers from older browsers to newer ones that support HTML 5 and location services, then we will be really seeing this type of behavior that I‘m talking about on all types of devices. Where we can do banner advertising that’s very location based and location targeted on a PC, on a tablet, and do location-based ads that are smaller obviously on phones.

There seems to be a lot of convergence lately between check-in companies like Foursquare, deals services like Groupon and content sites. How do you see that evolving?
I don’t know what’s going to happen to Foursquare. I’m concerned about Foursquare, in general. I don’t know if it’s going to keep up. I think that business is really tough because it’s retention-based and the mechanics have to constantly be optimized to keep people. I don’t know whether people will continue to be interested in checking in for gaming purposes. I don’t know if it’s a definite human behavior yet.

I mean, are businesses going to be going to Foursquare and saying, “Hey, bring me 500 more customers” or “Find a way to bring me 500 more customers this month” or not? I don’t know yet. I think that there’s such a large disparity between the usage of Foursquare and the other services out there that I think that it’s unclear how they will interact yet.

As far as content goes, I think that all of us need to introduce content. We provide our content API to all these different media companies because content is a way to engage people that aren’t interested in game mechanics and don’t really care about the gaming aspect of these applications on the Foursquare side.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.