Boxfish Building a Search Engine for Television

Eoin Dowling doesn’t agree with people who say there’s nothing on television these days, and he’s setting out to prove them wrong with his new television search engine Boxfish. The company, which just came out of stealth mode and is gearing up for a public launch, has built a system that captures every word spoken on television in the U.S., UK, and Ireland in real-time.

“We believe that there’s another internet that isn’t being captured, and it’s in real-time,” Dowling said. “Right now we’re sitting here and there’s hundreds of TV channels broadcasting relevant information right now, and it’s not accessible online.” Though Boxfish is based in Palo Alto, Dowling and co-founder Kevin Burkitt are originally from Ireland. They previously built Red Circle, a company that provided digital entertainment like ring tones to mobile devices, and sold it to Zamano in 2007.

Dowling got the idea for Boxfish after frequent visits from his hearing impaired mother. During her visits he would enable closed captioning on the TV, and it hit him that captions are basically reference points to the video that aren’t being captured. He decided build a tool that indexes television the way Google indexes the internet. He and Burkett moved to Silicon Valley in January 2011, and spent the last year building the tool and operating in stealth. They also raised $3 million in Series A funding in September 2011.

In terms of how the tool actually captures the dialogue, Dowling said he has to be “evasive about the detail” for now due to several patents they have pending. “In the most basic sense, we have TV aerials plugged into the back of a lot of servers in the U.S., the UK and Ireland, we take the TV stream and split it so that we pull the relevant info and process the signal in real time, building a text stream from TV that we make searchable,” he said. “We ultimately want to use this technology as a layer of discovery between television and the internet.”

Users haven’t always used the tool the way Dowling thought they would though. “We thought there was a big opportunity with politics this year,” Dowling said. “We built a tool that says ‘the words spoken about Romney and Obama are these,’ and then we let it loose with a few users, and they completely ignored that, and just started searching celebrities.” He said a small percentage of people search for politics, but they’re “coming back for Lady Gaga and Kim Kardashian.”

Today’s top 10 keywords include Oprah, Romney and Tebow. Dowling also said his team is in a good position to provide analysis on trends – for example, on their blog they’ve been outlining which U.S. Republican candidates are leading in terms of on-screen mentions (currently it’s Mitt Romney with 50.3 percent). They’re also focused on making the tool useful in real-time. “Twitter is the only place that gives you that real-time lens on things. Twitter pretty much owns real-time. We think that there’s this other real-time universe out there and it’s broadcast television, and it’s not being captured,” Dowling said.

Dowling envisions several products coming out of the search functionality. One is a Google Alerts-style notification system for viewers who want to know when topics or keywords they’re interested in are being talked about on a different channel. There’s also an obvious utility for companies who are looking to see when they (and their competitors) are being mentioned on television – media monitoring companies like Cision conduct those searches right now, but they’re often quite pricey.

The business model will revolve around these products – targeting companies and agencies with a subscription model – as well as paid search results. Dowling said they’ll be looking to offer paid options to TV networks or shows, so a network could promote their show higher in a viewer’s search results, or provide additional pop-up notifications. While they don’t have any official broadcast partners, Dowling said they are in talks with several networks, and he said they see the potential in this “SEO for television” model. “The obvious business model is search – if someone looks for something, you can offer them something of benefit,” Dowling said.

He said he also sees potential products in the mobile and second screen spaces. “The real long-term vision for this is literally to be a utility. Before we put the home page up on the website, we had a simple Twitter feed on 5,000 times a day, someone would say ‘there’s nothing on television.” When we were seeing all the data coming in, we were saying ‘there actually is, you just don’t know how to find it.”

But Dowling said before they build those products, they’re working on the technology, and making sure it captures everything well. Because of the funding they received in September, Dowling said there’s no immediate pressure to launch. They’re also working to build an API by the end of the year so third-party developers can build apps using the platform. With second screen companies like Wayin gaining attention, and television analytics companies like Seevibes trying to provide broadcasters with insight on who is talking about their programming, it’s clear that providing viewers with tools to augment their television programming, and providing broadcasters with ways to open up their content to new audiences, has the potential to be big business.


Erin Bury

Erin Bury

Erin Bury is a Co-founder and CEO at Willful, an online estate planning platform. Also a former Managing Director at Eighty-Eight, a creative communications agency based in Toronto. She was formerly the Managing Editor at BetaKit. Follow her on Twitter at @erinbury.

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