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When Will Social Search Engine Volunia Deliver its Quantum Leap?

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Volunia, a new type of search engine that has been in the works for several months, promises to offer a “radical new view” of search. Such a lofty claim may be easy to dismiss, were it not coming from one of the world’s most respected search engineers, Massimo Marchiori.

Marchiori named his search engine Volunia, which is a combination of the Italian words for flying and moon, as he explained previously, “because I wanted to evoke the quantum leap my social search engine delivers.”

Since opening up in beta to “power users” in early February, Volunia has naturally drawn comparisons to Google, as search industry and media folk speculate on how it will measure up against the existing giant. Let’s get that misconception out of the way right off the bat. In an interview with Search Engine Watch, Marchiori makes it clear they have no interest in competing with the reigning leader in the search market.

Volunia: Not Another Google

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“Our search is growing up, but it’s just foolish to say we are able to even approximate the sheer power of what Google is doing right now,” Marchiori said. “We play on the meta level, it’s about the social meta level. The search engine is just a way to make the whole system work better, but people will be free to use whatever search engine they want.”

Volunia has indexed a very small portion of the web, he noted. Through their browser extensions for Chrome, IE and Firefox, Volunia builds on the existing functionalities of search engines like Bing and Google. Users are free to use the search engine they choose, with the added benefits of Volunia.

There are plans to build out their index before going public, however.

“We are evaluating whether to go public with maps for every site, or can there be some sites for whom we don’t have maps yet?” Marchiori said. “That’s the slower part. Crawling is fast and indexing is relatively fast. The map creation process is slower because it involves evaluating the site and its infrastructure.”

Volunia Features

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If Volunia doesn’t plan to beat out Google in size, what do they offer to entice users to make the switch to this new method of search? While Google focuses on incorporating a social layer into search with their Google+ network and Google Search Plus Your World personalized results, Volunia’s entire premise is social.

Every web page is a meeting place, says an introductory video, where you can meet different people who share the same interests. A key differentiator is Volunia’s intuitive visual maps (see video at bottom of post), which sort and display content in a type of fly-over view for users, making it simple to navigate the site without following links or menus.

With Volunia, users will be able to see from the SERP if other users connected with the website are online and actually engage in live chat about the page. Rather than seeing personalized results based on which of your social contacts have commented on or posted about a topic, Volunia opens the doors to actually meeting new people associated with a result.

In this way, regardless of the quality of the graphics, it does social search very differently than anyone else right now. At its base level, Google social search seems designed to expose those within your social network who share your interests, even those outside the ones that drew you to them in the first place. So a search on a travel destination may bring back reviews and photos from people you connected with over marketing or music.

Volunia looks for people connected with the topic you’re currently searching. Google may do this as well, though you’re more likely only to see celebrities or brands suggested within a given topic. In that sense, Volunia is radically different.

The index is quite small; searching “Search Engine Watch” on Volunia brings back 249,000 results to Google’s 140 million. However, Volunia displays people outside the existing social network who are online and visiting websites appearing in the results.

Other social features include:

  • A visual or grid map of each site listed in the results on the SERP.
  • A user bar at the top of the SERPs displaying users who have previously been on this page.
  • The ability to view all multimedia results from the site.
  • A link to “Join the conversation on this page,” where other users may be discussing the site.

Volunia Power User Feedback Driving New UI and Features

Marchiori told us that three weeks ago, Volunia overhauled their user testing and feedback system so people could post new issues, with power users voting to tell developers which features are most important. Somewhere between 45,000 and 50,000 power users are testing the engine. These people signed on between Volunia’s teaser announcement in November and the beta launch in February to participate in the testing process.

“We don’t need much more testing on the scalability issue. We wanted to test that the system was able to scale up. The whole system is fine, so now we’re just getting user feedback because we want to refine the system,” Marchiori said.

One of the chief complaints of early users is the UI. Clunky and not aesthetically pleasing, it has drawn a number of criticisms, which Marchori acknowledges. “People felt it was a bit too dense, they wanted something more minimal so we’re building that right now, a sharper interface,” he said.

Another of the improvements expected before the search engine opens to the general public is a friend invitation system. “We’re working hard on the social and other functionalities that people were asking for; our features are much more fun to use when you have your friends there. You can join your friends wherever they are on the web,” he explained.

A third revision is coming to the browser extension, as user testing highlighted an issue where many sites were not compatible with Volunia due to the common practice of blocking other services from framing content. “We plan to issue a new revision of the add-on that counters the measure for those sites that essentially kick Volunia off. The user should have control over what their browser is doing. They should be able to choose whether they want to use Volunia on the site, and the browser add-on will do it,” said Marchiori.

Volunia’s Public Launch: Coming Soon

Though Marchiori would not commit to a firm date, expect to see Volunia open to the public “soon” (my best guess would be in the next 6 to 8 weeks). He is satisfied with their progress to date, but wisely wants to work out a few kinks before going public.

“We don’t need much more testing on the scalability issue. We wanted to test that the system was able to scale up,” he said. “The whole system is fine, so now we’re just getting user feedback because we want to refine the system.”


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