Web searcher with a human touch

UK business information provider Infofast has carved itself out a niche in what is an already oversubscribed marketplace. Toby...

UK business information provider Infofast has carved itself out a niche in what is an already oversubscribed marketplace. Toby Poston finds its secret lies in 'peopleware'

Imagine it: You are in the back of a cab on the way to an client meeting. Then, to your horror, you realise that you have left all your notes back at the office and you will be going into the meeting totally unprepared.

If only someone could do an Internet search for you and dig up some relevant information that could be sent to your mobile phone as an SMS message. What you need is some info, and you need it fast - Infofast - sounds like a good name for a company. Well, actually it is.

Infofast is a UK company, just over a year-old, that has found itself a niche in what many had considered an over subscribed business information services marketplace.

And it could be about to break what has been considered one of the golden rules of Web-based news and information services - charging for content.

The Wall Street Journal is always cited as an example of a news' provider that has persuaded punters to pay for its online content, but examples of other companies successfully doing so are very thin on the ground.

Infofast's proposition is that it offers an in-depth search in areas such as company information, market research, products, press coverage and competitors, and also covers non-business information searches on subjects such as travel, entertainment, shopping and leisure, for which it charges between £2.50 and £5.

Finding the exact information you need via a search engine is becoming increasingly frustrating. You always seem to end up with either no answers or too many. Search engines churn out masses of irrelevant Web sites that have to be sifted through to find what you are looking for.

"Even the best search engines probably have only a 60% success rate," says Martin Kelly, Infofast's managing director.

According to Kelly, this is because they search using meta-tags (an HTML tag used to mark up a particular Web page with the description you want a search engine to find it under) and only trawl through around 16% of the Internet.

You won't catch search engine companies disagreeing with Kelly, either. AOL and Compuserve have already signed up with Infofast and the company is in discussion with at least 10 other Internet service providers (ISPs) and search engines, that will provide links to the Infofast's advanced search services in return for a cut of the fee.

Infofast claims that its searches are 98% successful, and take between two and five minutes. A year ago, response times were averaging 24 hours.

Infofast's search technique is no patented piece of rocket-science technology, it is just a clever mix of people and software.

The first point of contact is one of Infofast's researchers, who do nothing but look for information - day in, day out.

"We realised that it would help if people could discuss their search and the results with an expert. We have to clarify about 20% of the questions asked," says Kelly.

Infofast's researchers aren't "just search-engine jockeys", says Kelly. The average profile of an Infofast researcher is age 20-30, with one A-Level or more. They work in cells of between six and 12 people, and tend to specialise in a particular topic area, such as business or travel, although they can all answer most questions. Once they have a search identified, a software program tells the researcher what sites to search, and enables them to check out a number of sites simultaneously.

Around 95% of Infofast's information searches do not use search engines, for the reasons already mentioned. The company has mapped out 3,000 of the world's best portals and Web sites, which are added to and replaced on a regular basis by the company's research team based in Marlborough. Infofast also has connections to over 2,000 databases run by information providers such as Reuters and Lexis Nexus.

Search answers can be sent to the client via e-mail, fax, SMS message or verbally over the phone.

Kelly is convinced that the main differentiator for the Infofast service is going to be his people.

"Internet companies are obsessed with an IT only situation, which tends to argue that if a human gets involved, there must be a problem," he says. "One of the firms that was looking to partner with us asked us if we had a voice recognition capability. I said 'yes - we call it people'."

Hardware, software - perhaps 'peopleware' could be the next big thing in e-business.

Company vitae

Born: Spring 1999

Directors: Martin Kelly - background in new product service development as a consultant for 3M, Toyota and Nissan

Also: Grant Gordon, Jeremy Lincoln, Angus Fleming and Mike Keep

Funding: Infofast attracted substantial private and European institutional investment earlier this year at a £40m valuation

Offices: Marlborough, Northampton (x2), Glasgow, and Kingston-upon-Thames

Elevator pitch:

  • 'Peopleware' - value-added human input to the Internet

  • Makes search engine sites 'super-sticky' by offering an additional, in-depth search capability should a standard search fail

  • Also offers ISPs and search engines immediate access to Web-to-mobile information delivery far in excess of current Wap capabilities

  • Lets search engine companies offer their users access to a further 2,000 to 3,000 online databases not available to Web users

  • New revenue stream: enquiry revenues split with search engine or ISP so raising potential industry profit margins

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