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The search for serendipitous recommendations

Mark Johnson on what sets Zite apart and how CNN ownership will affect the company.

This post is part of the TOC podcast series, which we’ll be featuring here on Radar in the coming months. You can also subscribe to the free TOC podcast through iTunes.


Zite CEO Mark Johnson (@philosophygeek) recently sat down with Joe Wikert to talk about his company, how Zite’s recommendation engine works, and how CNN is welcoming Zite into its family. Johnson also discussed serendipity, noting that it emerges, in part, from experimentation. “If you get it right 100% of the time, you’re not doing a very good job,” he said.

Highlights from the full video interview (below) include:

  • The CNN acquisition: “What’s great about CNN is they’re letting us remain independent, so I’m going to continue to be the CEO of Zite. We’ll be a wholly owned subsidiary … they bought us because they are also lovers of the product … I think that they’re really interested in letting us move forward, so you’re going to see a lot of enhancements over the next few months — we now have the capital in the company to allow us to grow.” [Discussed at the 3:28 mark.]
  • What makes Zite special: “One of the things Zite does is not just look at the subjects of the articles, but who wrote it, where it was written, how it was written … With that we can inject an element of serendipity into your application, but still be pretty confident that they’re the kind of stories you like. I’d also say, with any recommendation engine, if you get it right 100% of the time, you’re not doing a very good job.” [Discussed at 2:30.]
  • How Zite could extend into book-length content: “I think it would be really interesting some day to have excerpts of books in Zite and try to recommend books based on their excerpts. Or, you could even imagine us with the knowledge we have right now being able to recommend good books that go along with some of the short-form content that you’ve been consuming. There’s lots of opportunity for us to work together with book publishers to help users find the right pieces of content for them — really what we are is a content matching engine.” [Discussed at 11:13.]

You can view the entire interview in the following video.

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