The Professor and the Adman

You wouldn’t expect to encounter a craggy British academic type wandering around an interactive advertising conference. But there he was, peering out from behind a large white beard and thick glasses at booth #518 of Ad:Tech’s packed exhibit hall.

Professor David Crystal is a linguist and editor of encyclopedias who was honored with the Queen’s Order of the British Empire for his contributions to the study of language. A byproduct of this study of language, interestingly enough, has led him to New York and Silicon Valley this week, where he’ll be seeking partners for a new contextual ad technology.

The product he’s pushing is called Textonomy Advance, which promises to raise the stakes in the race for greater relevance in contextual ads. The company, of which Crystal is the chair, is called Crystal Semantics. It made a big push for industry attention at Ad:Tech, renting a booth and taking out an elaborate ad in the event program.

The professor looked a bit bewildered after the long trip from his rural home in Holyhead, Wales, where Crystal Semantics is based, to this week’s ad technology schmoozefest in New York.

“I’m totally out of my pool,” he said, surveying the crowded pressroom at Ad:Tech. But that remark belies Crystal’s jovial savvy for search and advertising technologies. This is a man who spent over a decade building a database of human knowledge and language, and then adapting that database to create a broad classification system for Web searching.

He knows more about relevance, that ultimate buzzword in search, than a panel of search marketing veeps.

“It’s such a simple concept,” he said, referring to the principal behind Crystal Semantics’ Sense Engine technology. “It’s straightforward linguistics.”

Textonomy Advance is the second application to be released under Crystal Semantics’ Textonomy platform, a “sense engine” that classifies Web content within a taxonomical structure of about 2,000 categories. These categories are intended to pin down the “sense” or meaning of a page.

Once identified, Crystal believes the meaning of a page can be put to use in myriad ways. The company’s first product, called Reveal and launched in July, aims to use the information to improve the relevance of search results. Textonomy Advance, introduced this week, does the same for the contextual advertising space.

The product, the company says, should prevent the serving of ads that literally match the content of a Web page but miss its underlying meaning. At best, these incidents reduce the value of contextual advertising. At worst, they result in embarrassing misplacements of ads.

To take an example offered by Crystal, Textonomy can identify the difference between an article about the economic sense of the word “depression” versus one about its psychological sense. Using that distinction as a starting point, the Advance product prevents a publisher or contextual ad provider from serving an ad for psychotherapy alongside an article about Black Tuesday.

At least as interesting as the technology is the story behind it.

Advance is the indirect product of many years of linguistics and knowledge classification work Crystal did while editing an encyclopedia for Cambridge University. That project resulted in the creation of a knowledge database that would lay the groundwork for a tool capable of classifying not only the content, but also the context, of any given Web page.

In the mid-1990’s, Cambridge sold Crystal’s database (and his team) to a Dutch company called AND, which tanked after an ambitious effort to classify literally everything under the Sun. Hans Abbink, who ran that company, oversaw offices around the globe; but he lacked the business acumen to keep AND afloat. By 2001, Crystal was once more a free operator. Database in hand, he and a few colleagues launched their own firm: Crystal Research, which later became Crystal Semantics.

“When it was done we ended up with a very powerful searching mechanism indeed,” he said.

Crystal does not intend that Textonomy be a standalone contextual advertising product, but rather an enabling technology that can be used to improve the relevance of results on existing search engines and contextual ad networks. He and his team are headed to Silicon Valley this week to carry on meetings they hope will result in partnerships with top players in search, online publishing and contextual advertising.

While Crystal says his small firm’s prospects are good, one wonders about the state of his spirits during this period of deal making. Is he irked to see the product of years of academic study licensed to the highest bidder?

“That did bother me at first,” he said. “But I’d like to think that in due course, whatever money we might make out of this, some of it will go back into the system that gave rise to it. Holyhead is a depressed area, and we’re employing 13 people there. If this succeeds, we’ll be a big employer in the town.”

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