Do@ Aims to Disrupt Mobile Search–Including Google

It’s ironic, or maybe apropos, that you can’t find anything about the new mobile search application Do@ by Googling it. Google doesn’t track the @ symbol at all. But the Israeli company (pronounced “do-at”), which launched its free iPhone app today at TechCrunch Disrupt in New York, is looking to do a number on Google. It aims to provide a new way to find stuff specifically when you’re on your phone and the iconic list of site links becomes cumbersome. Instead, a search using Do@ helps you zero in quickly what category of information you want and then sends you directly to the app that’s most likely to have just what you’re looking for.

Here’s how it works: Search for, say, “Bob Marley” using Do@, and you’re presented with a drop-down list with the query followed by categories designated with the @ sign, such as @music (where you’ll see results inside apps such as Pandora or iTunes or SoundCloud) or @movies (where the likes of Flixster or IMBD.com provide results).

These categories are relevant to the particular query, so a search on “sushi,” and you see “sushi @restaurants,” “sushi @food,” and so on. Then when you click on one of those, you’re whisked to an app or service such as Foodspotting or Flixster, which then shows its own mobile-optimized results for that query. You can swipe through multiple apps for a query to get more quickly to just what information you want.

You’re seeing only a selected subset of Web sites and services this way, of course, but for common queries made from a mobile phone, that may be better in most cases than a huge list of links. Do@ ranks the lists of apps and services itself at first, but you can choose your favorites or, if you’re signed into Facebook, get your friends’ amalgamated choices. Essentially, says cofounder Ami Ben David, publishers answer users’ queries themselves, using their own apps or services, their own brands, and their own business models.

The judges at the TechCrunch Disrupt startup competition who viewed the demo questioned how Do@ knows the results it’s presenting–that is, the results inside other apps and services–are actually relevant for users. “We try to stay away from making these decisions for users,” Ben David said. The judges, including Bing’s Barney Pell and Google’s Bradley Horowitz, weren’t really buying this, noting that Do@ needs to objectively determine whether its partner apps and services are actually delivering the goods.

When Ben David first demonstrated the service to me in early March, he said Do@, which has $8.6 million in venture funding including a recent $7 million round led by Draper Fisher Jurvetson, is “trying to be completely different.” That’s commendable, but it’s also the company’s key challenge. Google’s list of links may not be perfect for many mobile searches, but it’s still not bad, and Google’s Instant Search solves some of the hassle of doing multiple search queries on a phone keyboard. Persuading users to change their behavior, even for something that may work better in many cases, is a huge hurdle that virtually no Google rival has yet jumped.

And given that Do@ isn’t doing the heavy lifting to index the Web’s huge collection of sites, or vetting the actual search results its partners offer, its key offering amounts to a new user interface for mobile search. Which sounds like a set of features–albeit a very nicely designed set of features, one likely to be copied if it proves effective–more than a company.

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