The next big thing

Don’t call Zite a publishing platform; it’s a discovery engine

Interview with Zite's Mark Johnson

As the amount of online content continues to grow, it’s easy to feel as if we’re drowning in a sea of information. There are so many news sources, we surely miss articles and analysis that we would otherwise love. A number of services have now cropped up to help us winnow the ever-expanding web down to a digestible and individualized sliver. One of those is Zite,  a personalized magazine that helps users discover interesting content. Publishers have been understandably wary of some of these new platforms, believing they give away content for free and separate articles from the larger magazine experience. I recently sat down with Mark Johnson, chief executive of Zite, to learn more about Zite and understand how the platform works for publishers. 

What is Zite’s creation story?

Zite started off about seven years ago as a research project from the University of British Columbia, and I wasn’t involved. The original idea was actually about automatically tagging documents. For example, delicious has a repository of tags and the founders thought ‘can we take that and tag everything on the web and then do something with it?’

That changed into a lot of work around search and discovery. The primary question that fueled the company was ‘can you find interesting documents and content?’ I  joined around this time because I had been working at some start-ups around search. But I also pushed the organization to shift their focus: ‘ I’ve worked for a lot of failed search starts up’ so maybe this should be telling us something. 

That was really the root of idea for Zite, and we started by imagining it as a product for the web. We had seen that years of technology had come together to create the potential for a personalized newspaper on the web, but no one had the right interface for it. And then the iPad came out, and we realized that was the perfect interface. So we shifted gears again and decided not to release Zite on the web and instead focused on the iPad.  

We came up with the idea in August and by March of next year, we had launched. This was a company who, over the course of the six years prior to the launch, had never had more than 10,000 users ever signed up. In a matter of hours after we launched, we had 10,000 downloads. By the end of the day, we were number one in the app store.

There was a price of success, though. We had very nasty letters coming in from major publishers telling us to cease and desist. A lot of content on Zite is in reader mode, which strips off extraneous information, including ads. We quickly fixed the issue and for publishers who want the advertising to remain on the page, we can do that.

But it was a major wake up call. We’re not just a small technology company; we’re now thrust into the world of changing media. We had to understand that it’s not just about improving recommendation technology, it’s about changing the way people discover content and changing the way content is monetized. We really needed to help the way the industry functioned.

How does Zite help people discover great articles and content?

On the back end, Zite looks at millions of pieces of content a day. We scan the social web for things that people are talking about. From that content, we try to pull out the most interesting stuff, classify it into sections and then do lots of analysis on the content. We look at who wrote it, how long it is, how many words. All of this things are potential signals to tell us if you’ll like something. We also look at a lot of social signals, like who shares a post.  

As you’re using Zite, you tell us some categories that you like. And those categories, or channels, improve over time as your read stuff. So, for instance, my technology channel now has a lot of articles on search and discovery. Zite learns about the type of things you like and tries to surface cool stuff.

I know you recently launched the new publishing platform. How does Zite work with publishers? 

It’s really exciting. We’re working with large publishers who have a lot of content and creating a channel for them that’s Zite-ified. So my CNN channel is great because it surfaces a lot of stories that I may or may not be able to find on the CNN website, but that are highly personalized to me.

This is great because we’re not competitive with the CNN application, where you go to get everything, such as all of the CNN videos and content. What we offer publishers is a great experience within Zite, which is where the readers are. It’s also good for publishers because the user has indicated that they prefer CNN so they’ll start to see more CNN content throughout Zite. The other benefit is that their content looks a little bit better. We have an enhanced reader mode.

Most importantly, though, is that we encourage users at the end of the content to go download the CNN app. We don’t view the CNN app as competitive. Our goal as a discovery engine is to introduce you to great content, great authors and now great applications. I want someone who read a great Economist article to say ‘Oh wow, I should go download The Economist app.’

We don’t see ourselves as a publishing platform; we see ourselves much like a search engine where we introduce people to great stuff.

So you really see Zite as helping publishers, not hurting them?

Yes. Absolutely. That’s what we wanted to do with the publisher program. And one of the reasons it took us a while to figure out what to do was because we didn’t just want to be another publishing platform. We wanted to create something that fit into how Zite worked, that was noncompetitive with publishers and that helped users discover great new apps.  

I know better than anyone that app discovery in the Apple store is really hard. If you’re not in Apple’s top 20 app lists, no one is ever going to find you. So we really offer something unique. In some ways, we’re really all competing with Angry Birds. We’re competitive with people’s time and attention. What should be encouraging to publishers is how long people are spending reading news. The total amount of news consumption has gone way, way up. I’m an optimist.