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Originally published April 9, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 9, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Brier Dudley

Visible Technologies a software company to watch

One of the more intriguing players in the 2008 elections may be a quiet little software company in Pioneer Square. You've probably never heard...

Seattle Times staff columnist

One of the more intriguing players in the 2008 elections may be a quiet little software company in Pioneer Square.

You've probably never heard of Visible Technologies.

But if you're participating in social networks, commenting on blogs or sharing your opinion on the Web, it's heard of you.

Visible is monitoring every place that people can submit comments online and copying the conversations into a massive database.

Discussions are mapped, influential people are identified and Visible's software then helps clients engage in the conversations or directly contact the influencers.

A final version of its latest product, a console for managing this activity, is due in May. But the technology is already used by big companies — think software and computers — plus several Senate campaigns and at least one GOP presidential candidate.

Its other major product is a search-optimization tool that companies and several local billionaires use to influence how they appear in search engines' top results.

Founders Dean Graziano and James Webber say there's a line of customers waiting for them to expand capacity, and Visible could be acquired within a few years.

London communications giant WPP bought 25 percent of Visible last summer.

Now Visible's about to seek more funding, scale up and expand from 52 to 100 staff members this year.

Not bad for an outfit started four years ago in the Kirkland apartment of Graziano, a former tennis pro.

He and Webber found a hot niche of the software industry, serving marketers racing to build or buy tools to work with new media.

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"I think the rise of the Internet as a mainstream media has created a lot of opportunities for enterprise-class software that empowers large companies to deal with this medium in a new way," said Gartner research analyst Andrew Frank.

Among the handful of companies in the space is Waggener Edstrom, a Bellevue firm that handles Microsoft's PR. Now it's patenting its own system for tracking brands and topics online, using text mining and social-networking tools.

Visible claims its advantage is the console that streamlines how companies engage online.

If a blogger badmouths the Hummer, for instance, the system could notify GM. Within the console, a PR person can draft a response, inserting key points, then get approval to post or e-mail the nettlesome blogger.

Clients pick an "author" or opt for anonymity. Visible also has a virtual army — thousands of personas registered with online forums.

Graziano said the idea is to make it easier for companies to respond and participate, but it's up to clients to decide how the tools are used.

"This is a communication tool," he said. "It's not a pull-the-wool-over-anybody's-eyes tool."

One assumes companies and campaigns use this sort of thing. But it's amazing to see how powerful the tools are, and how easy it is to analyze and influence the chattering hoi polloi.

It makes you think twice about the authenticity of conversations in the Web community. It's also a reminder that you have to think critically about all media, new and old, online and off.

The technology can also backfire, if the users go too far and come across as inauthentic participants online, said Forrester Research analyst Peter Kim.

"In the end," he said, "the authentic voices win out: the human voices."

I hope he's right.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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