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Do `Social' Search Engines Have the Answers?

A group of start-ups are changing the way users, as well as Google and Yahoo, get information.

July 17, 2006|From the Associated Press

Steve Mansfield operates his own Internet search engine from a place he calls a secret hide-out -- a small office surrounded by low-rent apartments on the outskirts of Lexington, Ky., a college town known for its horse farms.

Mansfield conceived a few years ago on the premise that humans, from pretty much anywhere, can collectively provide better intelligence than a computer program developed out of Silicon Valley.

Other start-ups, too, have had similar visions for "social search." And today, even large competitors such as Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo Inc. and Mountain View, Calif.-based Google Inc. are pursuing the concept, hoping that it will help make search results more meaningful and thus expand the companies' market share.

Traditional search results are largely based on objective criteria such as counting the number of links other sites have placed to a given Web page. Social search gives people subjective answers -- the best sushi restaurant in Chicago or the best website for information about French Impressionism -- not necessarily the site visited the most.

"You're essentially breaking up a problem and sending it out to a huge number of people for a query, getting answers back," said Steven Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "It kind of ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. Other people are going to make associations and connections to information you probably would not have made."

At PreFound, launched this year, users contribute to the knowledge pool by submitting clusters of websites that they believe would appeal to like-minded people. As an incentive, the largest contributors even get a share of PreFound's advertising money.

A visitor looking for information on, say, New Jersey beaches can get the user-recommended sites, grouped by users. One user's cluster gives you restaurants, Internet cafes and other information on the coastal town of Ventnor City, N.J.

The more people contribute sites, the better the results.

Jones said it was too early to know whether social search would dramatically change the way people look for information on the Internet, but it's already changing the way traditional search companies do business.

Yahoo, a distant second to Google, has entered the game largely by buying some of these start-ups, namely, a system for discovering new websites based on shared bookmarks, and Flickr, a photo-sharing site where users tag items with keywords to help friends and strangers alike discover photographs on any topic.

Google has started to incorporate community answers to travel and health questions into its main search engine. It has also established a program that allows users to contribute their own content, tagged with specific attributes, to turn up in search results.

"To some extent the small companies have invented it, but the big companies have been thinking about it for quite a while, too," said Charlene Li, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Steven Marder, co-founder of Eurekster Inc., considered one of the earliest social search sites, said Yahoo's and Google's entry into social search was "validating our philosophy and methodology."

Although the change in direction at the Internet search leaders proves that the start-ups were onto something, it also is forcing the small companies to either find a specialized niche soon or get swallowed by the much larger fish.

Marder said Eurekster, where results are based on the number of clicks to a given site, would never be a destination site like Google or Yahoo, but he was trying to market the service for companies that want to build their own specialized search engines on private Web pages.

Likewise, PreFound is largely trying to cater to academics.

Other start-up efforts include the appropriately named StumbleUpon, which three Canadians designed to cater to habitual Web surfers. Type in a topic and click "Stumble" to randomly be diverted to a site popular with other users.

"It's more of a recommendation engine than a search engine," said Garrett Camp, one of StumbleUpon's founders. "All they really want to do is discover all the best sites up there. Google is still going to remain focused on the task-oriented. StumbleUpon is much more discovery."

Such is the mantra for many of these start-ups that have seen Google or Yahoo upstage them on the concept of social search. They're marketing themselves as more vital than ever, hoping to pick off a few users, which might be all they need to turn a profit.

"There's room for lots and lots of players in the search race," said Chris Sherman, associate editor of Search Engine Watch. "We've got the major players out there, but as people get better at learning how to navigate the Internet, they're not going to necessarily be looking for an answer from these titans anymore. They're going to be looking for more specialized or personalized information."

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