StumbleUpon’s ‘Social Search’ Upgrade

October 30, 2007

That Google’s faceless search engine has enjoyed such immense and lasting popularity doesn’t much impress the passionate minority who say the human touch is sorely lacking in Web search.

Yet not even fans of “social search” sites like Yahoo! Answers, where users steer the recommendations, can compete with the cool efficiency of Google and others that use sheer computing power and complex formulas to spit back thousands of results, often in less than a second.

But there’s no reason it has to be one or the other. So now StumbleUpon, maker of a Web browser toolbar that directs users to sites recommended by others, is offering a new version that runs alongside the major search engines. The goal is to combine the speed and authority of Google, Yahoo! Search, or Microsoft Live Search with the opinions of a community—and of one’s friends and acquaintances within that network. “There’s no reason you can’t have both,” says StumbleUpon co-founder Garrett Camp.

Social Search Options

For those familiar with StumbleUpon, which launched nearly six years ago, the new toolbar marks a significant change. The original StumbleUpon focused on what its founders called “social discovery.” Users who downloaded the application and “stumbled” were directed to Web pages based on the positive ratings of friends or other users with shared interests or similar voting behavior. (Users can register opinions of any site they visit by clicking a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” button in the toolbar.) The new version of StumbleUpon places friend and community ratings next to the Web links displayed by major search engines and other popular destinations such as Yahoo’s photo-sharing site Flickr.

StumbleUpon, acquired in May by Internet auctioneer eBay for $75 million (BusinessWeek.com, 4/23/07), isn’t the first company to attempt to combine social search with the computer-generated results produced by the major engines and their sophisticated mathematical algorithms. ChaCha and Eurekster have long specialized in “human touched” search results.

ChaCha, whose name is a play on the Chinese word for search and the Latin ballroom dance, provides conventional search results by combining links gathered from the leading engines. But it also highlights the links found to be most useful by its thousands of users and editors. Eurekster works by enabling users to save search results and highlight the links they found useful on a specific subject, for instance, Halloween costumes. New users looking for the same information can open the saved search featuring the results others decided to highlight.

“Beyond Entertainment”

But StumbleUpon has happened on an approach it thinks will resonate better with users because it doesn’t require them to switch to an entirely different search engine. Once downloaded, the toolbar simply adds information to the regular search results. And by now, StumbleUpon has amassed a sizable store of information to respond with, thanks to an existing base of 3.7 million users who have rated more than 13 million Web pages. Smaller social engines often lack results on more niche or esoteric topics that may fall within that database.

StumbleUpon’s biggest advantage may come from its new backer. Since being acquired by eBay, the company has hired seven people to help develop new features for the toolbar. Camp says the company plans to make the new toolbar compatible with more search engines during the coming months.

Over time, StumbleUpon may also integrate its user-driven results with product search engines. For example, it could recommend products based on other items that users with similar interests or search histories purchased. And naturally, eBay is exploring ways to integrate StumbleUpon’s technology with its online auction and e-commerce businesses. “We are moving beyond entertainment,” says Camp, referring to StumbleUpon’s original use as a way to discover other fun sites. “Now we are making search more useful.”

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