Jeff Gelles: Marrying search and social networking to enhance commerce

Alex Khorram of Cliqsearch, a Web tool that marries two apps - search and social networking - to enhance commerce.
Alex Khorram of Cliqsearch, a Web tool that marries two apps - search and social networking - to enhance commerce. (JEFF GELLES / Staff)
Posted: February 02, 2012

If you use familiar search tools such as Yelp or Angie's List to help choose, say, a great place for Sunday brunch or a trustworthy contractor, maybe you've wondered: Sure, lots of people recommend it, but how do I know I can trust them?

A new Philadelphia company, Cliqsearch, aims to solve that problem in a novel way, with software that links you to recommendations from people you're especially likely to trust: friends, and friends of your friends, who have mentioned a business on social networks.

The intersection of social media and commerce is huge news at the moment, thanks to the blockbuster $5 billion initial public offering announced Wednesday by Facebook. Cliqsearch is at the opposite end of the spectrum, with about $1 million in angel funding, a staff of seven, and a business plan that just this week began drawing revenue.

Cofounder and chief executive officer Alex "Pooyan" Khorram, 37, has already impressed some knowledgeable outsiders, such as Munir Mandviwalla, chair of the management information systems department at Temple University's Fox School of Business.

"People have been looking for the next thing in search for a long time," Mandviwalla said in an interview. "Cliq has added a new dimension to search."

Cliqsearch - yes, the name is a double-barreled pun on clicks and cliques - is designed to address a growing problem on the Internet that affects its value as a search tool for goods or services.

Some companies have been shown to be paying for shills willing to post positive reviews on their products - a phenomenon called "opinion spam" that threatens to devalue the whole concept of "asking the crowd" for recommendations.

Even trusted resources such as Angie's List and Consumers Checkbook provide only anonymous information, leaving them at similar risk. And, as many people have learned from reading movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or hotel critiques on TripAdvisor, one person's poison may be another's cup of tea.

Those problems, coupled with the explosive growth of social media, provided the germ of Khorram's idea.

With websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare, consumers can easily see if friends or associates have mentioned a business. They can even post questions such as: "Can somebody recommend a plumber?"

But any individual's network, by definition, is fairly small. So Khorram wondered: What if there were an intermediate point between "crowdsourced," totally anonymous information and specific reports from a person's own circle?

The result is a search tool available in beta form since last month at www. cliqsearch.com, beneath the slogan: "Because reviews from complete strangers are not enough."

Cliqsearch makes use of the open architecture of social-media sites. If you log in with your Facebook account and enter "Sunday brunch in Philly," you won't see what the whole world says, nor only what your friends and Twitter connections recommend. You'll see something in between: Facebook "likes" and other kinds of mentions from your friends and from their friends, too.

Khorram says an active Facebooker probably averages more than 200 friends. Even allowing for overlap, he says, your friends-of-friends universe can easily top 15,000 or 20,000 people - a sizable data set of people that you can probably trust and that have a better-than-random chance of sharing your taste.

That's not all Cliqsearch offers. It's also building what Khorram calls "the next-generation Yellow Pages": So far, it has created more than a million Web pages for businesses mentioned on social-media sites.

Companies can "claim their page" for free and correct or update information, Khorram says. But for monthly fees starting at $10, they can do more, such as post pitches: "You're a friend of Alex's? Buy one, get one free today."

Khorram's cofounder and largest angel investor, Barclay Knapp, says Cliqsearch marries two of the Internet's all-time killer applications: search and social networking.

"It really brings the two powerhouses of the last decade and makes each more valuable," says Knapp, a "serial entrepreneur" whose resumé includes cofounding Cellular One in 1983.

Temple's Mandviwalla, who has examined hundreds of ideas and business plans over the years, says the friends-of-friends network holds great potential - for research as well as for search.

"In the last decade of looking at all kinds of things," he says, "this is the one that stands out."


Contact columnist Jeff Gelles

at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

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