Social + Location + Real time + These 2 Startups = The Future of Search

Social Search Series: This summer I am embarking on a journey through on the emerging web of Social Search.  Traditionally known as the Questions & Answers industry, this category is currently being transformed by social and mobile technologies.  No more asking a site questions and finding old answers.  I believe the future of the web is ingrained in the dynamic interdependence of social and informational networks.  This is part III of the series.  For background, check out Part I and part II.

Social, although hot right now, is not the only technology transforming the web today.  Location-based social search applications are bridging the gap between our online and offline worlds – and in doing so creating a whole new way for people to find and use information.

This post dives into the new territory of Location Relevant Social Search.

We first determined the traditional question and answer model is now insufficient, since the system doesn’t know your exact location, who your friends are or have any contextual understanding of your query.   The resulting answers are typically of low quality and relevance proving a broken model.

Additionally, search technology needs renovating and although Google is currently King of the Search Land they still have a lot to do if they want to hold onto their throne.  Basically, the amount of information on the web is growing so quickly that even the major search engines are bringing back mostly meaningless results.

I am postulating the next generation of search will reside within your network of contacts, and I call it Social Search.  In my first article a graph was used to illustrate four quadrants separating the field of emerging social search startups.  The first quadrant revolves around Location Relevance and it looks as if a few associated startups are positioned well to change the very way we interact and search online.

First, a few tenets we can stand on when talking about Location based social search applications:

  • Most of the worlds information is generated, organized and stored by human beings
  • People generating information are always at a specific location found with exact coordinates
  • So naturally, generated information always has specific geographical data attached to it
  • Combining those data sets: Search + Social + Location + Context = Maximum Relevance

In a related post, Evan Britton noted “the goal of real time search engines is to inform the public of what is going on right now.  By adding location data, internet users can be specifically informed as to the happenings in a city.”  Indeed, real time search results are incomplete without geographical data included in the context.  Location relevance completes the equation to help provide users with the best possible results when searching for specific information.

Location based technologies are changing our lives in every way imaginable.  Take the emerging location tracking application Glympse for example.  Watching someone drive along a map on their way to meet you, being found when lost on a mountain side or viewing thousands of people moving throughout your city in real-time are just a few ways Glympse will change our lives.

Or think about a similar application Geoloqi, a service using persistent location tracking to trigger notifications tied to real-world places.  Maybe it’s a note you or a family member left for you at the grocery store or maybe it’s part of a set of geolocated data that you opt-into subscribing to as a layer because it was of interest to you.  Some use the app to let their co-workers know how quickly they are getting through traffic to arrive at work.  Make no mistake, location aware applications are already changing the way we interact on the web.

Quadrant: Location Relevance

So what happens when you combine social, searching and location?   Annotating results with specific geolocation data when a query is submitted is fundamental to providing users with the BEST answer possible.  According to Bing, over 50% of mobile device originated search queries are about a specific place.  Think how often you quickly grab your mobile device to search for something.  Exactly.  The search world needs to catch up to the intricacies of how we are using the web today.

You can find the entire list of emerging social search startups here, but I am highlighting two emerging startups innovating location-based search and are poised to be big players in the search space.

LOCQL

LOCQL, Seattle startup some would refer to as “Foursquare Meets Quora”, has smartly put together two basic premises; 1) everybody knows a little bit about something and 2) location specific information always make things more valuable.  Marry those together, involve some game mechanics and you have a living, breathing repository of location relevant information based on where you currently find yourself. Using social power, LOCQL finds the missing links between the user’s queries and the places in the local landscape for which they are searching. They are still in beta but anyone can use the application.

LOCQL Co-founder Robert Mao can see the future of search lies within humans; “The idea for LOCQL came from our life experiences, as International travelers we traveled to many different places, relocated our home’s several times in different countries. There are so many ‘best kept secrets’ only local people know about, those who’ve been there just know it. Unfortunately, without a service like LOCQL, you won’t be able to find it from the web, nor can you find it through search engines.”

A major problem with current search engines is the “objective vs subjective” issue, and the qualitative differences found between their results.  Through quantitative analysis, Mao found up to 60 percent of location intended searches are subjective, meaning relevance can vary a lot between two different users searching on the same subject. “Social search is basically harnessing collective intelligence by crowdsourcing the answer from real people, so by nature it better solves the queries which are subjective.”

With LOCQL, users search or submit on topics and questions – typically in relation to a specific location – and receive highly relevant, useful answers.  “Who has the best burger joint in Seattle?” searched on LOCQL would give you one or two specific answers left by other LOCQL users who actually know the answer.  The same searching on Google will send back hundreds of useless links, most gamed by SEO keywords.  Plus one for LOCQL.

LocalMind

Where LOCQL is building a repository of location based information, Localmind, co-founded by Lenny Rachitsky and Beau Haugh, is centered around a real-time social search platform.  It can be thought of as the power of omniscience at your fingertips — the ability to know what’s happening anywhere in the world, right now.

According to CEO Lenny Rachitsky, they are working on a somewhat obvious concept. “We’re living in the 21st century for god sakes; we have data on people’s locations, we have always-on devices in our pockets, we have all kinds of sensors in our devices and in our world. We know more about what’s happening across the country than we do at the restaurant we’re thinking about going to. We are putting all those pieces together and solving that problem.”

Localmind allows you to send questions to users checked-in anywhere around the world to help solve your basic needs and inquires –  like how crowded is the bar, how many girls at the club, how good is the food at the restaurant, how long is the line at the airport.  More interesting uses include people sending questions to Japan after the tsunami asking if there’s anything they can do to help, or people getting free concert tickets when asking about a concert venue, or saving a family a few hours of travel by finding out a certain hotel was closed.

It has been found that subjective queries can be monetized at 5x – 10x higher than objective queries.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where all this is going.  Google and Microsoft, I hope you are listening.  The problem incumbents face is these types of platforms are so different they are usually built from the ground up using a whole new infrastructure, not tacked onto an existing search tool.

Lenny noted there are 4 core things they focus on: 1) Your preferences, 2) your friends preferences, 3) your current location, and 4) your exact date and time.  Combining those gives users much more relevant and useful information.  Interestingly, Google would have no clue how to answer those above searches and probably just shrugs its big shoulders if you try.  Alas, plus one for Localmind.

The much accomplished team of three launched Localmind at SXSW in March and have already shipped four major updates to the iPhone app.  Their Android app is in it’s final beta release and will be entering the marketplace in a few weeks, and they also have an open API (www.localmind.com/api) that allows anyone to built on top of their platform.  Amazingly, Rachitsky says 70% of searches are answered in 5 minutes and they just reached 20,000 users, both numbers are satisfactory to Rachitsky at this point.

With a newly raised angel round of funding and relocation plans to San Fransisco, Localmind looks like they are warming up to play some hardball.  And LOCQL, a relatively quiet startup still in their beta release, is very strong technically and has a promising future a head of them.  Indeed, it seems both are ready to play David to Google’s Goliath.  Now, where is that rock again?

Next time, I will determine if Location Agnostic applications are changing the way we are searching on the web.  Yes, I’m looking at you Quora.

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The Future of Search: Why Humanoids Will Rein Over Androids

Social Search Series: This summer I am embarking on a journey through on the emerging web of Social Search.  Traditionally known as the Questions & Answers industry, this category is currently being transformed by social and mobile technologies.  No more asking a site questions and finding old answers.  I believe the future of the web is ingrained in the dynamic interdependence of social and informational networks.  This is part II of the series, you can find part I here.

In my last post I briefly covered how the nature of the web is rapidly shifting toward social.  I also noted the future of search does not look bright for Google, who seems to constantly struggle connecting social dots.  I call this new category (formerly known as Q&A) Social Search and here’s why I think it is emerging as the future of the web.

Semil Shah, in a recent post suggested Google is Asking the Wrong Question With Social.  He seems to agree with my stance:

Before the Internet, most “search” was conducted through offline directories and by the time-honored evolutionary tradition of asking questions. “Where would you recommend I stay on my trip to Hawaii?” “What dish did you order at that new restaurant in the hotel?” “Where can I get the best deal on that hotel?” Google has elegantly stripped down these queries and trained us to, instead, enter the following text in a search box: “Hawaii + hotel deal” or “Hawaii + restaurant + popular dish.”

Now, that might be how some geeks actually ask questions in real life, but this is not how we are wired to search. We are most accustomed to asking questions as an extension of our own curiosities.  And while Google keyword search is incredibly efficient, the content it points us to is unfortunately declining in quality. The bottom line is that although it’s never been easier to search online, it’s getting harder and harder to find exactly what we’re looking for because there are perverse incentives to not only create, but also promote, keyword-optimized content.

Eloquently put: traditional online search goes against our biological inclination of gathering information – asking questions.  Naturally, humans tend to search for information through asking other people questions because we intuitively know everyone is an expert at something.  And as hard as Google tries it cannot create an algorithm as intelligent as a human being, let alone harness the quality of knowledge curated from many different people and perspectives.

So what’s the point of social Q&A and why is it merging into the next form of search?

I would postulate the original point of asking questions – even dating back to prehistoric times – was actually search.  It was how humans searched for information before Google, PageRank and keywords were available.  Cavemen conducted searches when they asked others where they made their last killing for the same reason we, in the 21st century, type “pizza” into a Google search bar; to find out where to have dinner.  Because most humans are now constantly connected, it feels more natural to use social tools to find information.  Notice how often we send out messages on Facebook or twitter asking our friends  this or that, if they have eaten at a certain Pizzeria or seen the latest Transformers movie.  It is not a coincidence social questions are increasing at a rapid rate.

As I was talking to a CEO the other day he made an interesting analogy I think fits well in this discussion.  During the first internet wave (mid 90’s), it was fascinating how you could sit in a coffee shop in Seattle and somehow find information, communicate and do business with another person in a place like Tokyo.  Borders became irrelevant as the web layered on a communication system that spanned the globe.  Never before in human history had we experienced this phenomenon and it certainly was socially and economically transformational.  But today, do we really care about what is available to us in Tokyo?  More than what’s available in Seattle?  Do we want 1,000 different options displayed on 100 pages to requiring time and attention to sift through?  No, the pendulum seems to be swinging back the other way.  We care about what is going on down the street, in our social circle and in our immediate local surroundings.  We want to be shown what is MOST relevant to us at the moment (and not have to see the rest).

It seems the cycle in Search has followed the same trajectory.  Google broke through because it discovered the very best way to 1) index and organize the web and 2) bring us information matching specific keywords when we searched.  But it’s a different web now.  The problem is there’s just too much information on the web today.  Like, waaaaaaaaay too much.  The major player(s) are struggling to instantly sift out 99.999% of the information in the world so they can provide us the most relevant and useful .001% – our answer.  What they lack is intuition.

For example I live in Seattle and right now I am hungry for pizza, in fact New York Style Pizza, so I choose to do a quick search on Google “New York Style Pizza” to find an viable option.  Observing the image above, it is clear Google is lacking in the contextual department.  Lil’ Frankies and Big Al’s are both pizza joints in New York City!  Amazingly, nothing on the page has anything to do with pizza here in Seattle.  This is not good.  I’m pretty sure my friends on Facebook or even growing local social search platforms such as CrowdBeacon or LOCQL would provide me a New York style pizza option closer than 2,400 miles.  I am aware Google has made strides in localization, but it is not apparent when I quickly use their main search tool.  This simple query illustrates how broken search is at the moment.

It is becoming clear to me, as more  and more information gets created each day, how important our network of social contacts are in bringing us information. More specifically, those two phenomenons are inversely related – as the amount of information grows, the tighter and more important my social contacts become. Why? Because as the amount of information increases we need context and location to help determine relevance. Context can help determine if I am searching for a pizza place in New York or if I am looking for New York style pizza. Location helps define if I am indeed looking for a New York style pizza joint here in Seattle.

Another noteworthy contextual observation is the innate difference between certain search decisions, for instance searching for a clothing retailer versus searching for a restaurant. I would be fine buying a shirt from a distant retailer in New York City. Ordering pizza…? Not so much. Google’s Android DNA doesn’t seem to understand humanoid nuances at all. I guarantee a social search application (powered by my friends) would intuitively understand the contextual and location nuances within my searches.

Understandably, this is freaking Google out and forcing them to push socially awkward applications onto their users at an increasing pace. Unfortunately this is not how social works, you simply cannot rush things on the first date or you will never have the opportunity for a second one. Google+ looks to be their best social offering as of yet, but only time will tell if they have finally aligned the social dots.

It is now clear why Google purchased Aardvark, one of the social search companies I highlighted in my last post. Just read this brief overview and think of how it could help us search:

Aardvark is a way to get quick, quality answers to questions from your extended social network. You can ask questions via an instant message buddy or email. The questions are then farmed out to your contacts (and their contacts) based on what they say they have knowledge of. If you ask taste related questions about music, books, movies, restaurants, etc., they’ll ask people who tend to show similar tastes as you in their profile.

It will be interesting to see how (and if) Google integrates Aardvark to help navigate this new search territory. Regardless of the outcome, I do not think Google will loose its shirt anytime soon. They have a stranglehold on the overall search market and most realize there are many different channels in search. I agree with Semil,”This type of search, or social discovery, will become important, but it won’t dominate search—it’s just one channel, and different social networks exist for different parts of our lives.” 

This is just the beginning of an incredible change in how we will find and use information and I cannot wait to see what emerges. In five years (2016)  we will not be looking at a white screen with blinking cursor begging us to type a few short words into the search vault so it can pull thousand’s of links for us to plow through.

In my next post I will go in-depth on the first of the four quadrants of social search, an area I believe has yet to fully experience this massive technological revolution.

The LOCQL Landscape

Man, what an exciting time we are living in right now. We are starting to see another aspect if the web explode with innovation – the local landscape. Local web applications are infiltrating almost every aspect of our daily lives – searching, shopping, taking pictures, and now Questions and Answers. Question and Answer sites (Q&A as they are referred to) have been around for quite some time, but only recently have entrepreneurs started innovating on the core concept: You ask a question, someone answers it. Startups such as Quora, Hipster, Travellr, localuncle, and many others are recreating the Q&A space for the era of social connectivity.

Quora

Quora, for example, founded by former Facebook employees, aims to build THE go to application for wisdom and knowledge. The cool thing about Quora is you can follow well known people as they continue to add their knowledge to the site. Quora seems to be the emerging leader of these newly minted social Q&A sites. Thus far they have maintained their focus on the relatively smaller web tech community of Silicon Valley. Questions remain (pun intended) if Quora can uphold their quality of answers as they grow in quantity of questions.

Hipster

Then there’s Hipster. Quite frankly, no one really knows what this little Q&A startup is doing. If you go to their homepage you are greeted with a prompt to search questions and answers about SXSW, a conference held in Austin, TX every March. Isn’t it almost June? One thing is for sure, they know how to generate PR and attention. I guess we’ll just have to keep an eye on this one.

But what if you added your specific location to asking a question and receiving an answer? Location based Q&A opens doors we only dreamed of just a few short years ago. “What if I could send into the ether a specific question about the city I just landed in and BAM, one minute later I receive an answer from someone I don’t even know who lives here?”

LOCQL

Enter LOCQL, a Seattle startup some refer to as “Foursquare Meets Quora”. These guys smartly put together two basic premises; 1) everybody knows a little bit about something and 2) location information always make something more valuable. Marry those together and (at scale) you have a living, breathing repository of location relevant information based upon where you currently find yourself. Isn’t that the basis of mobile search? When I use my iphone for search, I am generally looking for a restaraunt, coffee shops, a retail store, an address, directions, and many other location based information. Additionally, what if someone infused a solid Q&A application with mobile commerce capabilities? Mark my words, I believe this space will yield a big hit.

I caught up with LOCQL co-founder Robert Mao recently and asked him a few questions about his company and where it’s going.

Describe and explain LOCQL in a few sentences.

“LOCQL is a location based question and answer site that helps people find answers to places.
LOCQL uses game mechanics to enable social power to find the missing links between the user’s queries and the places in the local landscape they are searching for. Hopefully will be able to bring the local search and location based search to a higher level”

How did you come up with the idea behind LOCQL?

“The idea for LOCQL came from our life experiences, as International travelers, we traveled to many different places, relocated our home’s several times in different countries. There are so many ‘best kept secrets’ only local people know about, those who’ve been there just know it. Unfortunately, without a service like LOCQL, you won’t be able to find it from the web, nor you can find it through search engines. We realized people are increasingly looking for answers about places, according to Bing, over 50% mobile device originated search queries are about a specific place. Google’s Marissa Mayer recently mentioned 20% of all Internet search is about places! In those queries, only around 30% can be solved with today’s information retrieval based search technology. A big pie is missing! We are aiming on make this better.”

Yahoo Q&A has been around for a while. Why attempt a new Q&A site?

“Q&A has been around for a long time, even before search engine become popular. Q&A is one of the most natural modes of communication for human beings and we believe there are still plenty of space to make it even better. As you can see, Yahoo Answer has been there for such a long time, Stackoverflow.com become the most trusted source for the developer community, and the recent rising of Quora.com illustrates how a better designed Q&A can be incredibly attractive and useful. When we began work on LOCQL, none of the Q&A site were specifically for location related questions, or most of them just treat location a name or a category. In our point of view, location answered questions are very important and since they are increasing in frequency they deserve special attention.”

With a lot of competition, besides the location aspect how do you differentiate yourself?

“We do it quite differently, we deeply believe in “Less is more” principle. We do less, so we will be able to provide a better user experiences, especially when designed for the location/place related Q&A. We try to only solve a smaller set of problems than most of the existing players, so we can be much more focused. Another very interesting angel we try to solve the problem is gamification. “Be fun” is another principle when we design our product. If you try LOCQL you will find we have many social game elements build in, in fact some part of the service are purely enjoyable games for you and your friends. No matter if you want to travel, you want to move your home, or find more interesting things around your local community, it’s FUN! We try to make the service fun, playful, and at mean time, so it can capture some value and be useful at the same time.”

What is LOCQL’s current status, and what are your immediate next steps?

“We just opened up to a wider beta. In the first phase, we only let in around 150 test users in order to verify a few of our assumptions and help us understand this space better. We are now more confident and are accepting a wider group of users to try our product, also we released our gaming mechanic in this new phase, so LOCQL will be the most enjoyable Q&A site out there. It’s not just boring questions and answers.”
Image courtesy of of Flickr user Alexanderdrachmann.