Last month, I had the pleasure of tackling one of the more enigmatic trends in digital marketing today: social search. Since then, we saw a familiar name take a step into unfamiliar territory, when former YouTube founders Steve Chen and Chad Hurley purchased Delicious from Yahoo for an undisclosed sum.
Those who do search well (Google, Bing) have taken steps to "socialize" the search experience, but we're still waiting to see exactly how the search experience will change once social feedback signals are incorporated into the search algorithms. Meanwhile, the large scale social media environments we know and love (such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr) are still bound by privacy settings (and their own territoriality).
You can search within any of these sites, but from a behavioral point of view, search intent is very different compared to the Google home page. People know what's here and what's not. They're not looking for someone matching a description, just whoever showed up at the same party.
And these sites are having a hell of a time casting any spotlight on their search assets; for instance, how many people in the general public realize that YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world?
In "Google +1: What Does it Mean for Search Marketing?" I put forth the idea that Google's proven ability to make magic with consumer data could potentially turn Google +1 into a smash hit. This doesn't offset the practical necessity for publishers and webmasters to roll out +1 functionality across their sites, and alas, to date Google has fallen horribly short on enabling this.
Making Sense of Information Overload
But out of this head-scratching incomplete product rollout, we gain a new perspective. If the world's undisputed search giant still hasn't had any luck 'socializing' user behavior in search engines, maybe the real solution is to reverse-engineer user behavior in social media, bringing it back to a root intention which brought them there in the first place.
This is where Hurley and Chen, now at the helm of AVOS, might be onto something. In the company's press release announcing the Delicious acquisition, they cite the scourge of information overload on the web as a driving force in the future development of Delicious.
We'll try to steer clear of all the tiresome statistics showing how much information we consume every day (if you haven't, you can go here).
Here's one stat I quite like: The world produces between 1 and 2 exabytes of unique information per year. Just to put things in perspective, let's dust off our old analogy skills from SAT prep: an exabyte is to a gigabyte, as the population of India is to you.
While we've gotten pretty good at going out and searching for the answers to our questions, who is out there bringing answers to us? In today's abyss of information, there's a clear opportunity for someone to step in and do just that.
The Discovery Engine of Tomorrow
If Google is the definitive search engine of today's Internet, and Bing is the "decision engine," then it's plausible that the Delicious of tomorrow could be a true "discovery engine." You're going to trust the content flagged by your friends, family, colleagues, whoever -- more than whatever content marketers push to you, and more than the results toward which the search algorithms pull you.
The same way some TV viewers tune in, and others channel-surf, the arrival of a true discovery engine would complete the circle and cater to the needs of passive information seekers.
These are the same people who are exhibiting signs of information overload, and like it or not, in some way, shape or form: that's all of us.
A number of sites have attempted to brand themselves as a discovery engine: YourVersion, PolyMeta, SnipSnap, and who could forget the aptly-named Discovery Engine Corp.
Of all the sites which position themselves as a discovery engine, StumbleUpon would appear to be the most viable. They had a busy March 2011, first announcing a fresh round of funding and then launching an advertising platform.
StumbleUpon claims to have 15 million users in its community, though the truer measure of the network's footprint would be its number of active users, which is closer to 3-4 million users (monthly).
Delicious' reported head count of 5.3 million users hasn't been updated since 2008, a time when StumbleUpon also claimed about 5 million users. If this is the gold standard for a discovery engine, clearly Delicious has the wherewithal to battle for number one right away.
Surely, some changes are in order before the new site is unveiled in July. They could use a better array of browser extensions, make the management of privacy settings a bit smoother, and oh yeah, they'll need a revenue model.
It's been some time since Hurley and Chen spun gold, but it starts with a vision of a need that must be met. So far, so good.