Google might be synonymous with the word search in most of the world, but that hasn’t dissuaded others from bringing new search engines to the market, usually aiming to innovate in an area where Google has somehow let up its guard. Volunia, launched this week, promises to help searchers with three distinguishing features:
- High level site previews in search results
- A multimedia search within a site function
- A social layer which, among other things, allows Volunia users to share information and connect to one another
My sense is that it is the social layer which will be most appreciated by Volunia users. Let’s look at each.
Volunia Search Result Previews Offer A “Fly-Over” Site View
During his launch presentation, (in Italian, starts at 40 minute mark) Volunia founder Massimo Marchiori described search users as similar to chickens, trapped in cages and incapable of flying.
Users have been forced to choose search results by consulting one of those classic 10 item title, summary and link lists for too long. Wouldn’t it be nice if users were freed from their cages, and not only, were actually able to fly over a site, viewing a visual or a grid map, before committing to visit it?
Volunia, perhaps from volare, to fly, offers two types of high level site map previews, potentially freeing users from commitment tyranny. The first type, a visual map, aims to group areas of a site together in neighborhoods.
The second site preview map is in the form of a grid, reminiscent of computer folders. The expectation is that this format will be more useful to people searching from devices with small displays, like smartphones.
Interactive drill-down versions of the maps are also available from a Volunia menu bar which is visible while navigating a site. Site owners can improve the maps using a Volunia provided sitemap editor.
Result previews aren’t exactly a new concept – Ask.com introduced their binoculars feature in 2004.
Where Volunia differs is in their choice to show a site map preview instead of a page preview. Many searches are indeed navigational in nature, one reason Google provides their sitelinks for some queries.
Volunia may be on to something.
Volunia Wants To Surface Multimedia Otherwise Hidden In A Site
Initially the primary focus in Web search was on textual documents, particularly the html kind, rich in semantic structure with their glorious title, heading and paragraph tags.
Oh, I didn’t mention the links between documents, did I? Other Web content formats, from PDF files to images and then video posed much greater obstacles to search engine indexing for a number of reasons.
Today, major search engines like Google offer navigation links to enable a user to search just images or video.
Ambitious searchers can usually find an advanced search syntax page which allows them to limit their searches to specific sites and file types, but for the most part major search engines have taken the “don’t make me think” approach, providing searchers with a blend of media types in search results, what Google calls universal search.
Volunia on the other hand wants to make it easy for a user to discover the multimedia richness hidden in sites like NASA by providing a very visible multimedia site search filter.
The Web Has Come Alive, Says Volunia: Volunia’s Social Layer
Volunia’s second area of innovation is in adding a social layer to their search results and subsequent website navigation by the Volunia user.
In search results, users can select a site based on what other Volunia users are viewing right now. Volunia displays the number of page and site visitors.
It isn’t immediately clear how useful this feature will prove to be: after all, even if we want to follow the “wisdom of the crowd”, there’s no way to know if the site’s current visitors from Volunia are actually happy with their choice, nor would it be clear to what extent one searcher’s expectations for a page align with those already visiting that page.
The same visitor counts are also available as layers on the site navigation maps.
Seek & Meet: Interact With Other Volunia Users
What might arguably be Volunia’s greatest innovation is in letting fellow search travelers to a page interact with each other, what Volunia calls seek and meet, a feature which feels very reminiscent of Google’s now closed Sidewiki, albeit with two key differences. The first is that users can interact in realtime.
This birds of a feather real time information sharing might prove useful in a number of situations where people are looking for pre- and post- purchase information.
In the pre-purchase phase, a searcher might want to interact with other users to better understand the product or service they’re considering, not to mention to discover what alternatives others are considering.
Sometimes, it’s nice just to have confirmation that we’re making the right choice. In the post-purchase phase, searchers might be able to resolve support issues by consulting with other searchers – potentially reducing a company’s support costs while providing interactive peer to peer support 24 hours a day.
Each Volunia user is able to fill in a personal profile, much like any social network. The matchmaking possibilities are clearly endless, but I suspect it would be best if I don’t go there….
It isn’t rare to see glowing online reviews written by someone with a connection to a product or service, and equally harsh reviews from competitors or ex-employees with an ax to grind. It doesn’t take much to imagine people attempting to scam the system by introducing fake search users to interact with other searchers.
It remains to be seen if “seek and meet” really is something people will take to. Real time search collaboration will well depend on a critical mass of socially oriented searchers congregating on the same sites at the same time, no easy feat for a niche search engine.
Site owners will undoubtedly be pleased with the second apparent difference to Google’s Sidewiki: commenting can be disabled if desired, something Google didn’t allow.
Volunia, The Company, And A Few Volunia Tidbits
According to data published by Italian business paper Il Sole 24 Ore, Volunia was founded in 2008 by Massimo Marchiori and entrepreneur Mariano Pireddu, with Pireddu providing €2 million in funding to date. You might not immediately recognize Massimo Marchiori’s name, yet as an academic Massimo has been working on the theoretical issues of Web search for years.
His seminal 1997 paper, The Quest for Correct Information on the Web: Hyper Search Engines, would serve as one of the sources of inspiration for two Stanford students, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who would acknowledge Marchiori’s contribution to their own work, Google.
During Volunia’s beta phase, over 100,000 people are being invited to become “power user” beta testers. The Volunia user interface is in 12 languages but Marchiori said during the launch presentation that the actual index coverage isn’t limited to those languages.
The Volunia team has ideas for Volunia “extensions”, i.e. new functionality, which will be added to the core, the hard part which has already been done. Advertising will be added to the service.
Marchiori Says Social Needs To Emerge In Search
In an introductory video, Massimo notes that Volunia stems from an idea he’s harbored for several years, an idea for a “different perspective of what the search engine of the future should be”. In the Il Sole 24 Ore report Massimo said “The Web is a living place, there’s information, but there’s also people. The social dimension, already present, just needs to emerge”.
Bing, which started incorporating social signals from Facebook in 2010, and Google, which launched its social search in 2009, would probably both argue that the social dimension to search has already emerged. So would upstart blekko and to a lessor degree, the RussianYandex.
Armani, Chianti, Ferrari… And Volunia
Volunia is based in Italy, not in Silicon Valley as one might have guessed. Italy actually has a history of search engine excellence. Google may well power most Italian portals today, but the talent behind a now defunct Italian search engine, Arianna, led Ask.com to locate its European R&D headquarters in Pisa.
The Reality Check: Search Isn’t Easy: Volunia Faces Many Challenges
The basic task of a search engine, finding, indexing and retrieving the world’s information, is a complex one. The size of the Web is immense. There’s the problem of searcher intent: we know what we’re looking for when we type a brief search query, but those few words are often open to multiple interpretations.
Google has conditioned searchers to expect lightning speed and mostly fresh and relevant results. Volunia will have to perform well on all these fronts and navigate thorny issues ofprivacy.
Many start-ups have nonetheless tried to compete with Google and Bing. Some, like Cuil, ran out of funding before gathering significant market share; others like blekko, with far greaterfunding, are still working hard to win over hearts and minds. Whether Volunia will be able to pull this off remains to be seen.
Kick The Volunia Tires Yourself!
Volunia has a sign-up form for those who want to try it out. Go kick the tires and support the underdog! From messages that I’ve seen on Friendfeed, Twitter and Facebook, very few have actually had a chance to actually use Volunia, credentials are only dribbling out, most likely in an attempt to avoid problems similar to what Google faced when they first opened Google Analytics to too many people at once. I based the considerations made (and images) in this article on demo videos released by Volunia in order to give you a preview of what to expect.