OVGuide, combing through the online video haystack
As mentioned in the previous post, defenders of embattled movie indexing sites such as TorrentSpy and Peekvid argue that they're doing essentially what Google does -- helping people find material stored elsewhere on the Web. But for a glimpse at an online video site that really does resemble Google, see Beverly Hills-based OVGuide. Actually, it's a cross between Google and Yahoo -- a hybrid of a search engine tuned to find videos online and a directory of video sites organized by genre. Yes, you can use it to track down pirated movies and TV shows. In fact, when I visited OVGuide this afternoon, all five sites topping the directory provided working streams of "Iron Man," and three delivered the latest Indiana Jones movie. But most of the more than 1,700 sites indexed on OVGuide aren't devoted to movies or TV shows. Instead, they're focused on games, sports, cooking, education, cars, travel, science and scores of other interests. That's what sets OVGuide apart.
OVGuide was founded two years ago by Dale Bock, whose doctorate from Syracuse is in multimedia search. A year ago it landed a heavyweight backer: venture capitalist David Bohnett, who co-founded GeoCities. Bohnett knew Bock from another company he had invested in (pioneering online storage firm Xdrive, later sold to AOL). Bohnett's Baroda Ventures poured cash into OVGuide (which is still burning it), and Bohnett took over as the company's CEO.
The site uses a modified version of Google's search engine, one that focuses results by limiting the sites and the directories within sites that are tapped. OVGuide also tweaks the rankings, Bock said, to elevate authorized providers over bootleg sites because they provide a better experience. The Google-powered search engine will soon be replaced, however, by a home-grown alternative dubbed Relevis that more accurately identifies the video content of a Web page. Available in beta form, Relevis also gives the OVGuide editors more control over how to rank sites. When searching for "coq au vin," for example, the original OVGuide search produces a mix of instructional cooking videos and comedic skits, while Relevis' top results are purely cooking videos.
The search box is for people who know what they want to watch. For everyone else, OVGuide provides several ways to stumble onto content. At the top of the home page are lists of the top searches and most popular sites. Also prominently displayed is OVBuzz, a frequently updated list of what users are searching for. Further down are brief descriptions of 25 featured sites, most chosen by editors but some being sponsored listings (they're marked). Other links enable users to browse through OVGuide's vast collection of indexed sites by popularity, genre or alphabetical order. The two dozen genres range from topics (politics, food/wine, guns/ammo) to styles (anime, indie, games) and delivery mechanisms (mobile, p2p, video blog). It's breadth is a reflection of how pervasive and varied the use of video has become on the Web. Before you make another crack about online video being little more than sneezing pandas and cats on toilets, spend a couple of minutes in OVGuide's education section and be, well, educated.
As OVBuzz and the most popular searches box make abundantly clear, however, one of the main uses of OVGuide is to find bootlegged videos online. That's a reflection of the company's editorial philosophy, which puts a premium on comprehensiveness. "We do not screen out sites that have pirated content," Bohnett said in an interview Thursday. "We're indexing, we're linking, we're not posting." Bock added that unlike the sites that have drawn lawsuits from the MPAA, OVGuide has refrained from providing links to specific movie files. Instead, its links are to search results or video aggregation sites. For example, clicking on the link to "iron man" in the Top Full Length Movie/TV Searches box returns a list of links to pages at various video sites. It doesn't take long to get to a streamed version of the blockbuster film -- two more clicks, to be precise -- but it's still an important degree of abstraction. It's the difference between being an index and a destination. Tellingly, Bock said the company has never been asked by copyright holders to remove a link. Added Bohnett, "Personally and professionally, there's nothing in it for use to promote and further the [unauthorized] distribution of copyrighted material." And if the studios continue to make material available online, as they've done through sites such as Hulu and South Park Studios, "the unauthorized content will be marginalized."
Nevertheless, the more editorial control OVGuide exerts and the more attention it pays to what its users are doing, the more vulnerable it may be to accusations of contributing to copyright infringement. Although users do at least 100,000 searches each day for something other than Hollywood content, Bock said, most of the people who come to OVGuide are looking for free movies. That makes it tricky for the company to provide more active guidance to users. Bock said the search engine would eventually look at what a user was searching for and recommend similar content, possibly by dipping into large public databases such as IMDB and the All Movie Guide. The function would be automated, but how would the MPAA react if the recommendations were for items that weren't legally available? For instance, if someone searched for "Zathura," an underrated sci-fi fantasy by director Jon Favreau, would OVGuide suggest Favreau's "Iron Man"?
Bohnett reiterated that OVGuide isn't trying to pick a fight with Hollywood. "We're not going to be the ones that settle the dispute" over pirated video online, he said. "It'll be the Hulus, the Veohs, the YouTubes." In other words, it's hoping that companies with much deeper pockets will fight that battle. Nevertheless, OVGuide's ambitions are not small. The company has grown at a steady clip through word of mouth, reaching 10 million unique users monthly. Although it has a tiny staff -- only a dozen employees -- it recently beefed up its ad sales force and its marketing efforts. Said Bohnett, "We're in this to dominate the space, to be one of the major players."