Northside-based search engine hopes to revolutionize the web


Northside-based search engine start up Pikimal founder Eric Silver in the "Content Factory", where they make the pikis. (Photo courtesy Pikimal)

If you’ve ever tried to research a product online only to be frustrated by biased or inconsistent reviews, you might want to try a new Northside-based decision engine called Pikimal.

Pikimal works like a product search engine, but is unique in that it provides users with just the facts, said company founder Eric Silver. That means that users can make well-informed shopping decisions online, without having to wade through marketing-biased results.

The site already has a considerable list of pikis — or web applications — that pool data from actual product specifications and statistics. The pikis rank items according to a customizable set of priorities such as price or performance.

Users can find rankings for a variety of products in topics ranging from pro sports to health and beauty. There’s a piki for the “Best 2011 MLB Team for Power Rankings,” for instance, and the “Best Bathroom Scale for Small Spaces.”        

Silver, a California native founded Pikimal in January 2010. The site is currently in beta testing, which means there may still be a few glitches. Silver used to work at McKinsey & Company and was the former chief marketing officer and interim chief financial officer at ModCloth before moving on to Pikimal.

“We’ll bring it out of beta when we’re confident that it’s working well for all our users,” Silver said. “Since we’re still building our understanding of how users use the site, we can’t give a hard date on when we’ll have completed it.”

Silver, now 34, first got the idea for Pikimal in 2006 while studying at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. He noticed that the quality of online search results was worsening because of internet marketing and saw a need for a search engine that was truly objective.

Some companies use a process called search engine optimization to improve the visibility of their websites in search engines. It is a marketing strategy that can sometimes involve deceptive tactics such as padding content with relevant keywords. 

“It seemed to me there must be a better way. We allow facts to be prioritized by users so that [other consumers] get factual results instead of an article that has been paid for by somebody,” Silver said. “It was a combination of being exposed to marketing tools and, at the same time, seeing how they were making us worse off.”

Silver hired a programmer to help him develop his idea, but at the time, didn’t have the resources to make good work of it. He took another swing at it recently and was able to get the site up and running early last year.

“It has been a magical experience. I was in a motorcycle accident before that and I wasn’t moving around much. I turned off all the clocks in my house and spent a lot of time sitting and programming,” he said. “It was an exciting day for us to realize that we would be able to operate.”

Moving forward, Silver hopes to build local connections and improve content on the site.

“I’ve only lately been reaching out to other businesses in the area. I think that Pittsburgh has a strong set of mentors. They’re in Pittsburgh because they want to be here, and want to help their community,” he said.

“We want to connect to more and more local sources and be able to have all the research available and prioritized [for our users]. Then we want to get into more content areas.”

Using Pikimal is pretty straightforward. To find the best art museum, for example, you can indicate the importance of five different criteria, such as cost of admission, popularity, tours available and activities available.

However, there’s no way to define a criterion of your own. So if you’re also looking for the best art museum for modern art, you might still have to comb through the results yourself.

Some users might also find that there isn’t a piki for the product they’re looking for yet. Pikimal asks those users to contact them with a request so that they can add it to their list.

As of April, Pikimal is run by 13 full-time employees at its Northside office. Together, the staff works towards a mission to “help consumers make the best buying decisions.”

Jeanette Lee is a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University studying Professional Writing and Investigative Journalism.

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