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Special Report: Innovation in Bangalore – Ask Laila

All around town, we had been seeing billboards promoting Ask Laila, a mobile, local search engine.  Now we were lucky enough to be ascending the staircase in an office building on one of Bangalore’s happening roads to the very office of this firm.  Nikhil, our Bureau Chief, checked us in at the front desk and we entered a room of work spaces.

It was well past 6:00 pm on a Friday, and the engineers were hard at work in front of computer terminals running command line scripts.  We were warmly greeted by Ask Laila’s CTO, Birla and his team, and seated in a corner conference room.

He began by explaining that Ask Laila was a tool for individuals to find local resources, such as hardware stores, plumbers, and restaurants, from their mobile phone on the go.  The service, he explained, is also popularly accessed from the web, as 60% of web search traffic is looking for local results.  Ask Laila can also be used as a tool for business owners, who can claim their listing, keep it up to date, and populate it with information that may ingratiate it in the eyes of potential customers browsing lists of results.  In these ways, Birla explained, the model is comparable to Yelp in the U.S.

However, as we learned from Indus, Birla reiterates that creating something like Ask Laila in India isn’t as simple as porting over the Yelp model.  For example, in the United States, one can purchase a vast index of businesses, addresses, and phone numbers akin to a digital yellow pages to incorporate into a local search engine.  In India, this did not exist until Ask Laila painstakingly located, called, and catalogued the businesses into their own proprietary database.  Furthermore, while there is a large group of users searching on their mobiles, as well as searching on the web, it’s more difficult to reach out to business owners to populate their profiles and keep them current.  Such shopkeepers and business owners are not generally web savvy, and especially outside urban areas do not have immediate access to a computer.

The technology must also accommodate users whose first language is almost certainly not English, which creates non-standard spellings of words as search inputs.  For example, the name Nandani, a girl’s name in India, may be spelled in a variety of ways illustrated below.

Ask Laila’s team has created a series of rules for grouping these non-standard spellings of words to produce the intended search result for the user, even if the spelling is not exact.  This allows people to search naturally and find what they are looking for.  Additionally, this series of relationships has not been catalogued as of yet and could prove both useful for other web search businesses, as well as fascinating for linguistic studies in the country.

But the tall tasks Ask Laila has had to take upon itself have placed it in a rarefied competitive position. Ask Laila now powesr mobile local search for AirTel, one of the India’s (and the world’s) biggest mobile phone providers.  This partnership has allowed Ask Laila to scale its technologies and optimize its search rules, like the one illustrated above, with a vast number of users.

The engineers at Ask Laila were sharp as tacks, and impressed us both with their understanding of the business and product, as well as their love of cycling.  At the onset of the company, they bragged that 50% of the employees cycled to the office, as it was much faster than facing traffic in a car, bus, or motorcycle.

After learning about their projects in greater depth, we bid farewell and safe cycling to the team and set off on the road for dinner.


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