Congrats to Sphere… I think

So Sphere — the “related-content engine” whose plugin I have been using here for some time — has been bought by AOL. As my friend Om Malik is, I’m happy for Tony Conrad and the team. At the same time, however, I have to wonder whether becoming part of AOL is such a great idea. Is it better than struggling along as a startup? Perhaps. But Sphere could be exchanging the frying pan for the fire. Chaos may be too strong a word, but AOL has been going through considerable upheaval.

Obviously, an exit that is in the $25-million range (according to Mike Arrington) is nothing to sneeze at. But will it help Sphere to be part of an online venture that is still trying to remake itself, and is part of a gigantic media conglomerate — a conglomerate that may or may not have a commitment to the company longer term? I’m not so sure. I hope that the company’s advisors, who have included Toni Schneider and Matt Mullenweg of Automattic, are guiding the company in the right direction (Toni Schneider certainly seems to think it is).

As Kara Swisher says, it would be a shame if Sphere were to “fall into one of the dark holes” over at AOL, since Tony and his team seem like a great group. Before I added the Sphere plugin to my blog, I tore a strip off the company’s blog search for being irrelevant — and Tony not only took it in stride, but listened to the criticism and the service got better. I wish them nothing but the best, and I hope that AOL is it.

Is Sphere winning at blog search?

For a company that has only been around a few months, Sphere.com seems to have already made quite a mark, including signing on for a trial with Time magazine that involves putting “Sphere It” links on Time stories. Clicking the link does the same thing as the Sphere It bookmarklet — that is, it searches the blogosphere for posts that are relevant to the story or page being viewed.

To me, the fact that Sphere has managed to strike such a deal when Technorati.com is already well-established in that area (it has arrangements with the Washington Post and Newsweek, among others) is indicative of how wide-open the whole field of blog search still is. Remember when Google’s blog search launched, and how excited everyone was? And yet, Google’s size and might doesn’t seem to have translated into dominance — in fact, its blog search is distinctly underwhelming. Icerocket.com, formerly owned by Mark Cuban, is a little better but not much.

Even Technorati.com, the kingpin of the field, often produces results that aren’t particularly relevant. Although my own demo of Sphere over the past while has been hit and miss, there have been several occasions in which it came up with distinctly more useful links than Technorati. The reason for this appears to be that Sphere — which uses software from predecessor companies Waypath and Yodel — does a “semantic analysis” of the text in a page and uses that to judge relevance, rather than just tracking raw links as Technorati.com does.

Susan Mernit is no doubt right that being in the right place at the right time and having a cool widget also makes a difference, but I think the search technology matters too. Sphere may not be perfect, but it’s better than we had before, and it’s certainly better than what we get from the king of search — Google — which seems like a real missed opportunity. Maybe Google is too busy launching things like Google Notebook and Google (chicken) Coop.