New Ideas in Search and Social Networking

Despite Google’s dominance – or perhaps because of it – many small companies are entering the search field. Often they use some variation on the social networking approach, or combine it with search. I receive press releases from these companies regularly, and it’s interesting to read the release and check out what they’re trying to accomplish.

What you’re about to read, then, are some mini-reviews. Where possible, I’ve visited and poked around each of these sites; each of them had at least one idea worth thinking about. If there is interest, I may revisit one or two of these sites to do a full-fledged review.

3Luxe.com

I’m starting with 3Luxe. It’s a cross between a shopping search engine, review site, and social network.

 

3Luxe’s goal is to make shopping easier by offering you a few well-researched choices for products or services. The company has “over a dozen writers and researchers located around the country who do the research for each product category.” While they do make their money from advertising placement, their search engine results are objective in the sense that nobody can buy their way into a placement. The social network aspect is that the site lets its users vote on their picks.

I was a little worried that the site wouldn’t be fine-grained enough in its offerings. After all, if you search for a digital camera, the search engine doesn’t know if you’re a total beginner, an experienced digital photographer, or someone very used to film cameras making the jump to digital. So when I searched for digital cameras, I was relieved to find that it returned eight separate categories – until I saw the list:


 

Yes, Digital SLR is on the list twice, and I’m not sure why “cordless phones,” “receivers” and “photo printers” are on the list; they seem a little like stretches to include, albeit justifiable. On the other hand, I rather like the presentation of the actual results; here’s a screen shot for video cameras (shrunk and cropped to fit, so it only shows one review):

 

Near the bottom you can see the “Luxe it or leave it” feature that lets users vote a particular choice up or down. You don’t have to be a registered user to vote. The link takes you to the full review. You can also leave a comment on the review, but you have to register to do so. That probably means the comments will be more useful and less spammy. The site covers a ton of categories, and is still in beta. “3Luxe is like the trusted friend who knows all about a product category in which you want to make a purchase,” explains Doug Worple, CEO of 3Luxe and one of the two brothers running the company. It will be interesting to see how this hybrid approach fares in the market.

vBuddy.com is a social networking site that asks the question “What if web sites could social network with people?” Okay, that sounds a little ridiculous at first, but the idea behind vBuddy is to give each web site its own network site. You become a member of the network by confirming your email from the web site’s domain. Once you’re a member, you can update the network’s profile, blog, photos, and post company jobs. Users can vote on photos and blogs; the most popular entries get showcased.

 

If you can’t become a member of a particular network because you don’t have an email account with the web site, you can always become a fan. Fans have fewer privileges, but they can post comments and make posts in the network’s forum.

They seem to believe in AJAX at vBuddy. See that list on the left? I didn’t need to click any links; I simply hovered my mouse over each item, and the content in the large box changed to highlight the important points of each area. For example, when I hovered over “People” the box displayed a bulleted list that included “Discover business contacts” and “Get to know like-minded people in various networks you enjoy,” among other advantages.

vBuddy is in limited beta now. That means there really wasn’t much I could do once I was on the site, aside from read the company’s blog and submit my email address to apply for a spot in the beta. The site might be of interest to a company that doesn’t have the resources to build its own social network but would like to put a friendly face on for their fans (and set up a way for their employees to communicate or possibly improve morale). I’m not sure of the size of this target audience, but I like the idea of an easy “front end” for a social network, and may keep an eye out to see what develops.

MyLifeBrand is not exactly a social network per se; it’s an aggregator. It lets users manage and aggregate their favorite social networks, communities and friends. Niche social networks can integrate their entire existing social network web site, members, and log-in credentials into MyLifeBrand. In this way, the niche networks may raise their profile and grow their own customer bases.

 

Member profiles are auto generated into a niche network’s database and site any time someone joins that community from MyLifeBrand. And users have a single log in whether they go to the community from MyLifeBrand or directly.

The icons across the top give users some interesting options. Click on the stars, and you can create a free individual account. The guitar lets musicians create a showcase page to promote their music. The Oscar is for people working in the media to create a page to promote their career. The Olympic medal is for gurus who offer any type of expert service. The last symbol is for companies to create their own showcase pages. There are only minor differences between the applications – and it looks as if they really are applications, as one of the required fields for each of these forms is a textbox in which to answer the question “Why do you want to be a member?”

I ran into some problems with the search mechanism. On the other hand, the sneak peek that I walked through (the red link on the lower right in the screen shot above) looked pretty impressive. MyLifeBrand takes a tabbed approach. The four main tabs are labeled “Community,” “MyLife,” “Networks” and “Search.” You use the Networks tab to browse to your favorite social networks. You can add or manage up to eight social networks, and set it up so that you’re automatically logged in to each one.

Under the “MyLife” tag, you can manage all your friends from all of your networks. You can communicate with them without leaving MyLifeBrand, sending individual messages or even broadcasting a message to all of them. Little icons next to your friends’ images show the logo of the social network through which you know them. You can also manage your content for all of your social networks under the MyLife tab. Another feature that registered users may find handy is the Community Directory; it lets you search, discover, and join new communities.

I was a little disappointed with the search function. It did turn up communities and even people, but as an unregistered user, whenever I tried to click on a link I got a screen that urged me to sign up and gave me no further information about the community. It would have been helpful to see a few paragraphs describing the community to give me some idea as to whether I’d be interested in joining. Keep in mind, though, that I did my search without registering for the site; it’s possible that I would have seen something different as a registered user.

The whole idea of a site from which you can manage all of your social networks is brilliant. I wrote about Google working on an idea like this earlier this month. The search engine teamed up with Carnegie Mellon University on a project called Socialstream. The bad news was that the project ended in 2006, and Google said that it had no intention of creating a real product from the research. Then again, that may be very good news for MyLifeBrand.

QueryCAT is a question-and-answer site, but it isn’t socially based. It has indexed FAQs from all over the web and made them searchable from a single site. It’s not topic specific; it looks for a specific “format” of web page.

 

As you can see, the site claims more than four million questions and answers. It uses the Alexa Web Search Platform as its crawler. It uses its own question recognition technology to power its search. The company also plans to offer the FAQ database and question recognition technology to other firms that want to add the FAQ search to their own site.

Here’s a screen shot of the search in action:

 

Though the screen shot claims that it returned nine results, I only got four. And they were not as useful as one could hope. The first one, for example, led to a page that no longer exists. However, QueryCAT did better with other questions. As with any search engine, its results are going to be dependent on what it searches, so they are likely to be uneven. Still, you might find that it’s worth a look; I don’t know of any other company that is attempting this particular approach. Whether it will be successful is another question – and a frequently asked one at that, for QueryCAT and other start-up firms such as the ones I’ve reviewed here. Only the market knows the answer to that.

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