In the world of search, there’s Google — 67% market share — and there’s everyone else. Bing (17.9%), Yahoo (11.3%) and Ask (2.7%) all lag badly. Due to the Mountain View behemoth’s undisputed search dominance, conventional wisdom suggests that anything you could want online you can find via Google.
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John Katzman – founder of education resource hub The Princeton Review and CEO of education search engine Noodle.org – begs to differ. Katzman believes that the next phase of search evolution will occur within specialized content sectors such as education, which, he argues, generalized search engines are not nimble, personalized, and social enough to efficiently deliver.
There’s precedent behind such hyper-personalized search sites. From Hipmunk to Seatgeek, ZocDoc to Zillow, Noodle is one of several micro-search engines that promise more granular and relevant results in a given sector. For example, Fandango searches movies. Bfub searches business articles. VADLO searches life sciences. In fact, the Advanced Digital Search Group suggests that lack of hyper-personalization is a weakness in the Google search model that leaves it open to exploitation by agile niche competitors.
All well and good, but does the notoriously byzantine and politicized world of education represent such a profitable niche search sector? Katzman confidently thinks so, even though Noddle’s revenue, much like Google’s, is based primarily on pay-per-click ad revenue (unlike Fandango, for instance, which also sells tickets). “There’s $1.3 trillion spent in the US on education, but until 30 years ago your city told you where to go to school and your state told you where you were going to college,” Katzman explained to me at his bustling Chelsea Pier headquarters on Manhattan’s Hudson River. “All the sudden, you’ve got incredible choices. Before, the only way you were going to a different school is if you moved. Now you’ve got all kinds of preschool choices, all sorts of K-12 choices, charters, independents.”
The college hunt, in particular, is a time when grandiose dreams get narrowed down to humble reality. Katzman promises that Noodle will not only make that process more systematic and individuated, but he boasts that it will represent a sea change in the hunt for colleges, internships, tutors, summer camps and anything germane to the lifelong pursuit of learning.
“It’s less ‘what you want,’ and more ‘who are you and let me give you some thoughts as to where you might go,’” Katzman explained to me. “It becomes a matching process. What kind of kid should be in what kind of school? We’re the TripAdvisor of education.”
“When you’re on Google, you generally know what you’re looking for. It may be hard, but you know what you’re looking for. In education search, nobody knows what they’re looking for. There’s a whole lot of data, but it’s terrible.”
Katzman is looking to “optimize” the 3.7 billion education-related searches conducted each month. It’s definitely a niche by Internet standards — Google processes more than 180 billion total searches per month – but not small potatoes either. Katzman estimates that the annual marketing spend in the education sector –- widely considered the second largest contributor to U.S. GDP –- is $40 billion. He believes that Noodle might get a healthy percentage of that number. This makes at least theoretical sense given the inordinate, even obsessive-compulsive, focus that many families give to the choice of college, and the huge amount of time devoted to this search-driven odyssey.
In moving towards that goal, Noodle operates somewhere between counselor and concierge. It specializes in scraping education-specific data from resources such as school district web sites, college websites, web tutorial sites — essentially everything that ends in .edu, and then some — and selectively serves that data up based on user preferences.
“The ideal is to make you feel like [Noodle has] whittled the world down to a reasonable number of smart choices,” Katzman told me, “and depending on what you’re looking for, if it’s a selective process, like schools or colleges or grad schools, you’ve got a portfolio of choices.”
Noodle’s most curious and perhaps unsettling feature is its college admission probability calculator, which gives students a ballpark estimate of their chances at getting into their top three school choices based on test scores and GPA. By no means an authoritative gauge of collegiate success, the calculator still might help transform a wait-listed application into an acceptance letter. In this way, it’s similar to how a bubble school’s RPI might sway the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournament Selection Committees (if only there were strength-of-academic-schedule metrics for those applying to college).
The Noodle site also has a unique social component that’s foreign to most search engines. The cozy interface and sharing options make one feel less like one is wading aimlessly alone in the deep, dark depths of the Internet, and more like one is sitting down and collaborating on college plans. As I suggested to Katzman in our interview, putting together a Noodle college portfolio is like sitting down with one’s Schwab representative to put together a diverse portfolio of stock choices. Some of those college choices will be long shots with high return (think CalTechj) and some might be tried-and-true safety schools to which an applicant is likely to gain acceptance.
“The average education search is two weeks, and for things like college, it’s 2-6 months,” Katzman continued. “And every time you’re back to Google, you’re starting again. The idea [of Noodle] is that you save [choices and data] in a shared folder and the people you really care about — your parents, your two friends, your counselor, your Uncle Bob — they collaborate around these choices.”
In November 2013, the Department of Education selected Noodle to participate in its School Choice Design Challenge, part of the DOE’s Innovate NYC initiative to improve the process of searching for and applying to any of NYC’s 450 high schools.
About Innovate NYC specifically, Katzman said the aim is to take the anxiety out of the high school search process and even open students up to choices they weren’t aware of.
Freud wrote in the Pleasure Principle that the definition of “pleasure” is the resolution of anxiety. Any education tool that helps achieve that goal will certainly have legs with America’s students and parents. Moreover, any tool that dismantles the globally held shibboleth that high-quality college applicants must attend an Ivy League school or their life is ruined is music to my Johnny and Wildcat ears. If such a tool can help students discover and apply to schools that best match their interests, strengths, personality, and budget, all the better.
Whether there is a sustainable business model in slicing and dicing up the overall search universe into micro sectors of education content remains to be seen. My hunch is that any publicly traded player in this space will eventually have to sacrifice search integrity (Yahoo) and user experience (Facebook) in the interest of intrusive advertising and behavioral tracking.
My advice to Mr. Katzman, whose Princeton Review eventually became a penny stock?
James Marshall Crotty
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