Dataprovider: structuring the web

What started as somewhat of a happy accident, became the web’s biggest structured database. Dataprovider crawls through millions of websites per month to provide some of the world’s biggest tech companies like Google, PayPal and GoDaddy with very specific data. Co-founder Christian Branbergen talks about how Dataprovider came to be and what it’s like to work with big, international companies around the world.

The web is the world’s greatest source of information - literally and figuratively. And for companies, it contains more valuable information than all annual reports and trend analyses rolled into one. However, the web is also the world’s greatest source of information chaos. As a result, it’s extremely tough to extract qualitative data. In 2009, Christian Branbergen, Gijs Barends and Marc Noët decided to take on that challenge and started Dataprovider. The company currently has a team of 44 people, with offices in Groningen, Amsterdam and Silicon Valley.  

Without getting super technical, how does a structured database work, exactly?

“Say you’re looking for a shoe store in Amsterdam or Paris. That’s absolutely no problem for your search engine. But what if you’re looking for an overview of all shoe stores in the Paris area? Or how about every shoe store in Europe, along with contact data like email and phone number? Or say I wanted a list of every Dutch online store that accepts PayPal or credit card payments. That’s not something you can easily Google and it will take ages to search for it manually.”

“Search engines are great at giving you the best search results for specific questions. But they’re not good at compiling lists like that. So that’s basically what we do. We use a web crawler that gives businesses a way to sort of zoom in and collect very specific and incredibly detailed data, which they can use for things like sales, market or customer insights, analyze trends or audit web domains.”

How did you come up with the idea?

“Somewhat by accident! When I was still a student, I started my first company. It was basically a software tool that could count your calorie intake. I wanted to optimize the website to get more visitors, so I created a crawler to index the pages of my own website, to see how well it was doing in search engine rankings. And when I was toying around with it, I thought to myself, can I do that for other websites too? Turned out I could!

I’m good with technology and I like to code. I don’t really like the marketing and legal  side  of things. Gijs Barends and Marc Noët do and are very good at that so that's why we work very well together. Everybody has his specialty. ”

Paypal was one of your first international clients. How did you get them on board?

“Marc knew some people working at the Dutch branch and arranged a meeting. We showed them the tool and said: ‘okay, so here’s an overview of all the Dutch online stores using iDeal as a payment method, but not PayPal.’ They were very impressed.

“It’s funny actually, because we initially intended it as a search optimization tool, but because of working with companies like PayPal, it became the data tool it still is today. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were actually building a structured search engine where you can zoom in to get an insanely detailed picture.”

What’s the secret behind landing big, international clients?

“I think in general, we inadvertently came up with a tool that has real value to them. And of course that’s where our real market is too. It’s useful if you’re a big, international company. GoDaddy for example, is a really big web hosting company and probably half the Internet runs or their domains. Our data gives them detailed insight in how their domains are being used. They can compile a list of club websites for example that don’t have a .club extension yet and contact them directly, rather than spamming their entire client base.”

“So it’s pretty simple in that sense. If you have a product that costs 10 cents and helps other companies make 20 cents, it’s easy to convince them of the value. And a lot of these companies have the same problems, so we can pretty much offer and develop one size fits all solutions. It’s also not a long list of companies of course, so we simply make a selection of companies we think are interesting, develop relevant use cases and contact them through LinkedIn to show them a demo. So no big secret.”

Anything that was particularly challenging along the way?

“Well, the reason we work with big, international companies in the first place, was because it was pretty challenging to sell our product to SMEs. We thought, that’s a huge international market, but it didn’t work for us at the time, simply because many of these companies have no real need for this level of data, wouldn’t really know what to do with it or simply don’t have the right people employed to use it. And they also have very different problems, so we would have to come up with hundreds of different data solutions.”

“Another challenge initially was finding and hiring people here in Groningen. Since we pretty much only work with international clients, we’re virtually unknown in the Netherlands. So a couple of years ago, we decided we needed more of a local presence and we do things like give talks at the Hanze and Groningen universities, have our stand at job fairs, those sorts of things.” 

What’s next for you guys? Anything cool on the horizon?

“Well, we are currently working on something for SMEs again, but more in the form of a subscription based service. Something that’s easy to use and not saddling people up with an overwhelming amount of data. Another thing we’re working on, which I think is really cool, is a sort of historical summary of the Internet, going back 8 years. We want to generate detailed historical data, enabling you to explore how companies, websites, technology usage and implementation and entire markets change over time.”

“And maybe somewhere in the future, ideally, we would love to create our own search engine for the general public. We’ve got so much information, but of course it’s going to be an enormous task to try to figure out what it would look like exactly and if we can find the time to do that. But it’s just a dream we’re toying with.”