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October 2, 2007 12:01 AM

Mpire gets widgety with new ad network

Posted by Brier Dudley

Mpire is launching a new venture today that could be bigger than the company's original shopping search service, according to Chief Executive Matt Hulett.

Called WidgetBucks, it's a contextual shopping/advertising service for bloggers and Web publishers. The inspiration came from work Mpire did for eBay on shopping features.

"What we found out with eBay is, my gosh, if you show contextual products on a page, people actually click on it and they buy stuff,'' Hulett said.

WidgetBucks places a widget displaying a list of products keyed to the content on a Web site. A camera site may have a widget featuring top-selling cameras, for instance. Viewers clicking on items are taken to merchant sites.

Mpire produces the widgets and refreshes the list daily. The lists draw on the data Mpire's comparison shopping service compiles, so they display top-selling items and deals from a mix of online stores including, eBay and others.

InfoSpace and Marchex are among the local companies that have been testing WidgetBucks for about six weeks. It took Mpire, an 11-person company on Westlake Avenue, about seven months to build.

Hulett said it should be particularly appealing to bigger Web publishers generating lots of pages dynamically, because WidgetBucks figures out the optimial product mix to display on each page.

Like a few other entrepreneurs, Hulett's also eyeing Facebook's growth. The widget is designed to work on Facebook pages, despite the site's restrictions on outside ad services, though kinks were still being worked out late last week.

The Flash-powered widgets are also advertorial content. They display reports pulled from Mpire, such as top-selling products in a particular category.

I'm curious to see if the widgets feel as useful as Mpire, a site that's a nifty way to compare prices across different shopping sites. Will a preselected list of shopping options feel as helpful? It probably doesn't matter -- they're ads, not search results, and their utility will lie in how much money they make Web publishers.

If it works as promised, WidgetBucks could make Mpire a more likely acquisition target.

Hulett said he's focused on making ads perform better for publishers, but he's also thinking about options.

"There's so much happening in advertising and everyone's looking to see what they need for an arms race; an ad network makes us more attractive,'' he said.

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