Conduit's Browser Toolbars Serve Up Web Sites To Go

Posted by: Rob Hof on June 23, 2009

I’ve never been a big fan of toolbars, those strips just above the Web page on your Web browser where search engines and others place a series of buttons to reach their services quickly. For awhile, I had three or four from eBay, Google, Yahoo, and others, but I rarely used most of them, and finally uninstalled them to clear out the clutter.

Apparently a heck of a lot of people still use them, though: A startup called Conduit has made a profitable business out of helping 200,000 Web publishers and businesses—mostly small (like the Pretentious Pooch pet store in Baltimore), many overseas, but some large ones like Major League Baseball—offer them to some 60 million active users. The publishers like them because they can essentially syndicate their Web sites right onto people’s browsers. That way, the publishers have a better chance to get people coming back to their sites to use their various services—that is, if they can get past the reservations of people like me.

(To get a taste of what the toolbars look like, here’s the promo for Major League Baseball’s toolbar, and here’s TechCrunch’s, as well as a gallery of many others.)

Now, Conduit, which lets publishers create custom toolbars, is looking to blow open toolbars so that they may become more attractive both to publishers (and maybe to me).

On June 23, it's announcing Conduit Open, an initiative that's intended to spread toolbar services throughout the Web. For one, publishers will be able to turn their toolbar buttons into widgets, or mini-applications, and offer them for other publishers, which then can use them as widgets on their own toolbars.

For another, toolbar users will be able to add widgets to their existing toolbar. For instance, they could add eMusic's "Song of the Day" widget to their Travelocity toolbar, since Conduit is the platform for both of them. "We're tying all the publishers into a network," says Conduit President Adam Boyden.

Conduit, which is privately held and doesn't reveal the size of its revenues, makes money when people click on ads they view when they use the Google search box on Conduit toolbars and land at a Google search results page. Conduit gets a cut from Google in return for giving Google access to small businesses and communities it can't do deals with individually. The company, based in Israel, raised $8 million in a second round in January 2008, bringing overall funding to $9.8 million.

It's impressive that Conduit has managed to get so many publishers and users of its toolbars. I can't help wondering, though, whether even Conduit Open will get past the fact that most people probably don't want to mess around with adding and changing toolbars--especially since they won't have complete control over what's in them, since publishers can turn off the ability for users to add content to their toolbar. That makes them less versatile, it seems to me, than start pages like NetVibes or MyYahoo. The latter of which remains my main start page because I've extensively outfitted it just as I want it, and no one else has offered enough more to both changing.

Still, Conduit Open is an interesting way of making a relatively small, often forgotten piece of screen real estate more useful--and potentially lucrative. These days, Web publishers can use anything that brings in a few more dollars.

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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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