By Rebecca Sentance

A screenshot of the landing page for Plonked: a dark grey webpage with a large central search bar. Above it the text reads, "Discover, analyse and connect with businesses for free."

Earlier this month came the launch of a brand new search engine dedicated to providing in-depth insights into the business world. Its name? Plonked.

In the world of search, even dominated as it is by giants like Google and Bing, there’s still room for a small organisation to do something new, and do it well. Enter Plonked, a niche search engine focused on providing information about businesses.

Plonked was co-founded by Ankur Varma and Josh Atir, both residents of the San Francisco Bay Area with a wealth of experience working in technology and software. The idea for Plonked was born out of conversations with sales teams about their work process and methods of discovering new leads, which led to the realisation that the tools they used for discovering companies – including Google – were either outdated or not detailed enough.

“Google’s done an amazing job when you think about categorising the web; there’s your tab for images, your tab for news, videos, and so on; but there isn’t an equivalent thing for businesses,” said Varma, the co-founder and CEO of Plonked.

“There’s no way I can click on Google and say ‘Just show me the businesses that meet this criteria, this location, this size, this kind of a business profile’, and so on. So we set about building that out.”

Poking around Plonked

At first look, Plonked is a slick, well-designed and aesthetically pleasing search engine, without a lot of confusion or clutter. I had a poke around its features, and found it easy to use. The homepage invites you to search using company names or keywords, like ‘Uber’ or ‘Internet of things’, although Plonked’s goal is to provide users with a natural language interface, which can respond to queries in everyday language.

“We don’t want people to have to go and learn about industry codes,” Varma explained. “We want people to be able to come and ask questions the way they would ask in Google.”

At the moment the search engine seems to respond mostly to keywords, and a change in wording can affect the results a lot. A search for ‘Internet of Things’ versus ‘Internet of Things companies’ brings up two completely different lists of companies, with only a couple of results in common.

But Plonked only launched to the public a little over two weeks ago, with a beta period of about two months before that; there will be plenty of time for improving its algorithms. The team is keen to learn from and adapt to the way that people use their engine.

“As we get to look at the kinds of queries people are doing, we’re making our engine smarter,” said Varma.

“We’re seeing the kinds of terms people are using to search for companies, and that’s helping us to make sure the machine learning algorithms underneath the search engine are tuned to recognise these kinds of words, and all variants of these kinds of words.”

Plonked is currently pretty narrowly focused on technology businesses within the United States, so unsurprisingly, a search for our parent company Contentive yielded no results. Instead I decided to have a look at the search results page for Tumblr, Inc.

The top section does a good job of summing up the essentials about Tumblr as a company, though I can’t comment on the accuracy of the funding figure. I did find the ‘Postal and Courier Services’ tag to be an odd inclusion, but Varma told me that the tags are added automatically to a company’s page when Plonked crawls the web for information about them, although users can also add and edit tags themselves.

“The idea here is to use tags in lieu of SIC or NAICS codes [codes for classifying a firm’s primary business activity] for search and filtering,” he said. “We believe that tags are more meaningful than industry codes. Shortly, we’ll be adding an advanced search feature where users can narrow the search results based on tags.”

Plonked fetched 77 companies which were ‘similar’ to Tumblr, a multi-layered process which involves not just looking at which companies fall into the same categories, but also how their founders and employees are connected on social networks, company websites and sites like Github.

In ‘Explorer’ view, users can see the connections between companies mapped out visually, with different coloured lines representing different relationships such as partnerships, customer companies and so on.

Further down the page is the Tumblr ‘leadership team’, a list of those in charge of the company which is for some reason sorted alphabetically by first name; it strikes me that something like sorting by hierarchy would be a bit more useful here.

If you’ve signed up to an account with Plonked (which has to be done with an existing Google or Microsoft account), the search engine will use your contacts to personalise search results, showing you how you connect with that company. One or two other features, such as viewing and subscribing to news updates about a company, are also not available without an account.

I asked Varma whether that might not put some people off, needing to share personal information before they can access Plonked’s full features.

“We have the option to not give up any contact information,” Varma assured me. “Many of our users choose not to share any contacts, and some choose to share contacts. It’s really up to them – and even if they share contacts on day one, if they don’t feel comfortable about it, they can wipe out all their contacts perfectly fine.”

On the theme of privacy concerns, and because Varma had mentioned that the search engine was able to learn from its users’ search queries, I asked how long the company was planning to store data from users’ searches. Varma admitted that they hadn’t considered that question yet.

“Honestly, I don’t know how long we plan to store it; for now we’re storing it indefinitely. But I can imagine that gets outdated pretty quickly. We’ll have to see as we keep exploring.”

It’s hard to talk about a search engine without talking about search engine optimisation, and Plonked is no exception to that rule. As I explored the site, I couldn’t help but wonder: is there such a thing as Plonked SEO? How can companies optimise their web presence for Plonked, if they want to? I put the question to Varma during our conversation.

“Yeah, we’re actually working on a document that defines what that would be for us, and how that would help companies do a better job,” Varma confirmed. “It’s certainly a very, very important topic, and something that we’re just getting our heads around to help companies get past that stage.”

A blue and black graphic composed of the letters SEO, where the O is enclosed in a magnifying glass with an eye in the centre.Image by Tumisu on Pixabay

Where no search engine has gone before

Niche search engines are certainly nothing new on the web, and countless niche engines have sprung up over the years only to die away or be absorbed into another company a few years later. Varma acknowledged this trend, but he also sees Plonked as having been created to solve a very complex and necessary problem, and the company still has a lot of work ahead of it to tackle that gap in the market.

“If you think about where we are today, we’re less than a year old. We’re getting to a point where we’ve done a decent job with search for tech companies in the US. We’re expanding to all companies in the US within the next six months, and then from there we’ll be expanding to Europe, from there we’ll be expanding to other parts of the world… I mean, we have a long ways to go, and this is because it’s a very, very large problem.

“We’re at a point where more and more businesses are going digital, which definitely helps, but we also know that there’s a very large task ahead of us to organise the data about businesses across the world.”

Source:: Search Engine Watch RSS