Baidu invests ‘millions’ in content recommendation engine Taboola
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Taboola Founder and CEO, Adam Singolda. Photo Credit: PR

Taboola Founder and CEO, Adam Singolda. Photo Credit: PR

China’s answer to Google says it controls 75 percent of search in China. The CEO of Taboola, which predicts your searches, tells Geektime, “Combining the assets of both companies is exciting.”

Baidu, China’s version of Google, has just announced a multimillion dollar strategic investment in content recommendation startup Taboola.

Taboola is the company that offers “Recommended for You” links at the bottom of articles on sites such as the Atlantic and Business Insider. The announcement comes fresh off the heels of a $117 million funding round announced this past February. But Taboola’s CEO Adam Singolda tells Geektime that this is a new and separate investment despite the fact that he said in February that Taboola had no interest in raising more money.

With the previous round, says Singolda, “Going global was one of our key goals. When we met Baidu we thought this is an opportunity to get both a strategic investor as well as strategic partner. It’s primarily driven by the opportunity we see to go ahead in China and in Asia.”

Baidu owns 75 percent of the search market in China and is the fourth most trafficked website in the world. Singolda says his company will “spend the next few months with Baidu thinking about what’s the next market strategy and how we can best do it to make it tailored and relevant to China.”

 What’s the synergy?

“We always thought of ourselves as a search engine in reverse. This is the first time that a search company is partnering with a discovery company. The opportunity to combine forces between the assets both companies have is exciting.”

A search platform like Baidu or Google works when you type in keywords. They scrape the web and find the best match for what you’re looking for. Singolda has said the idea for Taboola came about when he had finished the army and couldn’t find anything to watch on TV. It occurred to him that relevant TV shows should be searching for him and not the other way around.

“We’re able to index millions of articles, millions of videos and millions of galleries,” Singolda explains to Geektime, “then look at a person and the context they’re in and in less than a second, predict three or four things they may like and never knew existed. Beyond that, we’re able to look at what happened after the content was consumed and measure engagement, whether it was a good experience or not, and automatically optimize.”

In other words, while Google and Baidu have a tremendous amount of data about you, a specific user, Taboola has lots of data about the content out there and how someone who resembles you has consumed it.

“Google knows who you are,” explains Singolda. “After all, you logged into Gmail. We care less about who you are than the context you are in. The same person in the morning is completely different from when they’re coming off of Facebook during the day or at night when they’re on their iPad versus the weekend. But it’s the same person. Our job is to figure out what context are you in right now. Are you in search mode? Are you in social mode? Are you in a mobile device and it’s the weekend? Against that context make a really educated guess.”

Thus, unlike search, which predicts what you want after the fact, Taboola “is supposed to predict the search that you would have done without your actually doing it.”

Google enters the content recommendation fray

On the heels of the success of Taboola and its main competitor Outbrain (both companies are valuated at about $1 billion), Google and Yahoo have both entered the content recommendation fray.

But Singolda claims to be unfazed by the new competition.

“I’m sure Google will set the bar high and get everyone to be better at what they do. I’m excited that there is growing competition because it validates the space, and that it’s interesting.”

Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that Taboola now has Baidu behind it. When asked if Taboola’s endgame is to be bought by an Internet giant like Google or Baidu, Singolda dismisses the notion.

“We’re not looking to sell Taboola; we’re profitable. We believe we have something very unique that can become a big market over the next 10-20 years.” In fact, he says, Taboola’s goal is to become a recommendation engine for other things like travel and products, not just content.

Singolda says one thing he’s learned at Taboola is that if someone reads an article about a certain topic, “Most people think it would make sense to show more of that topic but in fact, that decreases the likelihood someone will read more. People are more interested in going beyond what they’re reading.” So if someone read an article about, say, iPhones, at the bottom you might want to show an article about travel to Mexico.

People tend to want to broaden their horizons, apparently. This is something that many advertisers don’t understand, for instance, when they target someone who searched for shoes with more information about shoes.

But why would that be?

“That’s what the raw data show,” asserts Singolda. Unlike advertising which targets people with what they’ve already shown interest in, Taboola’s approach, which he calls discovery, works. And the company has hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue to prove it.

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Simona Weinglass

About Simona Weinglass

I’m an old-school journalist who recently decided to pivot into high-tech. I work in high-tech marketing as well as print and broadcast media covering politics, business culture and everything in between.

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