Despite Google’s domination of the search industry, blekko has been able to carve out a growing niche for itself. But the startup has much bigger long-term plans. California-based blekko was founded in 2007 and brands itself as an “open” and “transparent” alternative to the titan of Mountain View.

blekkoBehold the Slashtag

Unlike Google, blekko doesn’t try to gather all of the world’s information; instead, blekko uses a community of human curators to help determine the best search results from a smaller pool of reputable, trusted sites. Another distinction involves trying to lessen the ambiguity of user intent with a concept called a “slashtag.” Three types of slashtags – topical, user and built-in – allow you to filter search results by providing more specifics such as a search for “diabetes /health.” You can use existing slashtags or create your own.

You can also create private Facebook slashtags composed of your likes and your friends’ likes when you connect blekko to your Facebook account. And you can even log in to blekko using Facebook Connect.

3 Engine Monte and Funding

Two years ago, blekko challenged the status quo with a game called 3 Engine Monte where it displayed three sets of results – Google, Bing and blekko – and asked people to choose the column they liked best. The game came on the heels of blekko’s Zorro Update, which represented a significant increase in the number of available slashtags, as well as an offensive in the battle against clutter and spam.

Blekko puts an emphasis on reputable sites – crawling just a fraction of the number of web pages crawled by Google and Bing. And as a tiny challenger, blekko has made no bones about presenting itself as a search alternative. Its website includes a “blekko Bill of Rights”:

  1. Search shall be open
  2. Search results shall involve people
  3. Ranking data shall not be kept secret
  4. Web data shall be readily available
  5. There is no one-size-fits-all for search
  6. Advanced search shall be accessible
  7. Search engine tools shall be open to all
  8. Search & community go hand-in-hand
  9. Spam does not belong in search results
  10. Privacy of searchers shall not be violated

In the same independent spirit, blekko has not shied away from taking jabs at Google, and its philosophy has resonated with many. Blekko secured some $30 million in funding in fall 2011 from investors including the Russian search engine Yandex.

Seeing a Traffic Spike

While blekko sees just a tiny fraction of the traffic of larger competitors, its traffic spiked nearly 400 percent in the first four months of 2012. Rich Skrenta, blekko’s CEO, attributed the spike to five reasons in a Search Engine Land story: improved index quality, dissatisfaction with Google, the end of Yahoo Site Explorer, distribution partnerships and trade show/convention appearances.

Another big moment last year involved blekko’s launch of improved SEO tools. The subscription-based service includes features like an Inbound Links report with real-time updates and links shown by category; an SEO Report Card that grades factors like Performance, Links, Content, Anchors and URL, and a Sections report that shows what a crawler indexes on your web pages.

Making a Bet on Tablets

Blekko’s latest initiative is called izik. Launched this month, izik is a search app built for iPad and Android tablets – designed to give you a different experience than you’re used to having on your laptop, with queries leading to a unique set of categories that you can explore. The new app is also touch-friendly; features allow you swipe horizontally to view more results, swipe vertically to view more related topics, or expand results to see more without leaving the page.

Socially Aware?

Like Google, blekko has taken the social plunge – announcing its social platform ROCKZi last fall with the tagline “Read. Vote. Rock.” The content curation platform lets you find, submit, and comment on news stories in numerous categories like Comics, Entertainment and Football. More than 100 websites had added ROCKZi boards within a month of the new feature being launched.

But can such small-scale social efforts succeed? Many have argued that Google doesn’t have much of a feel for social, but the search engine still dominates the search industry. Can underdogs like blekko ever amount to more than a mere annoyance? I’d love to hear your opinions about blekko or other Google competitors.

To find out what a page-one ranking on Google really means, check out our CTR study: A Tale of Two Studies: Establishing Google & Bing Click-Through Rates.