Before there was social, there was serendipity.
In the early days of the web, it seemed logical to rely on algorithms for discovering new content. After all, who needs people when we’ve got these fancy new computers, right? One of the earliest and best examples of these machine-driven discovery tools was StumbleUpon, a platform that scoured the web for content tailored to an individual’s tastes.
But today, of course, we usually don’t hear about the latest viral video from a machine, we hear about it from family, friends, or some other human aggregator. And more and more, these acts of discovery take place on mobile devices.
So where does the old guard fit in? Well, just as Facebook is working to make social networks operate more like a search engine, StumbleUpon has been working to making its discovery engine more social and mobile-friendly. And today, the 10-year old company is making its biggest leap yet into the unfettered web with impressive new iPhone and iPad apps.
Among the new design features is an interface that lets users slide from one Stumble to the next (not unlike Flipboard) and an attractive color-coded scheme for identifying a user’s interests. The app also shows a quick snapshot of each new Stumble before fully loading the page, a helpful feature for users who want lightning-fast serendipity, and for those of us who have limited data plans or are stuck in bad service areas where every pageload counts.
But snazzy features aside, the app represents a big shift in how StumbleUpon plans to reach its users. “This app is a starting point for a few real key areas of focus that we’re bringing to StumbleUpon’s products,” said Cody Simms, who last June left Yahoo! after seven years to become StumbleUpon’s Product VP. StumbleUpon’s mobile activity grew 800% last year, and while only 25% of its stumbles occur on mobile devices, it’s their fastest-growing distribution channel, Simms said.
The new app will also be used as an opportunity to expand StumbleUpon’s social arsenal. “Traditionally, we’ve been really great and finding stuff in your interests,” Simms said. “Now we allow you to see trending content and content from people you know, as well as experts in a particular topic.” While StumbleUpon has done trending and friend-based content before, these “experts” will represent a brand new class of users. Simms says experts are chosen not for their celebrity or cultural cachet (save that for Twitter), but because the data StumbleUpon collects tells them that these super-users are exceptionally good at finding content people love.
But perhaps the greatest potential for StumbleUpon going forward lies in capturing location data. Although this version of the app is not location-based, Simms says future versions will recommend content tailored not only to a user’s individual tastes, but also to their location. This functionality, coupled with StumbleUpon’s Paid Discovery ad platform, which seamlessly integrates sponsored content into a user’s Stumble sessions, could give the company an edge in the ongoing war to monetize mobile.
While StumbleUpon’s 25 million user base is nothing to scoff at, the discovery engine is still far behind the Facebooks and Twitters of the world. For that reason, it won’t be easy for StumbleUpon to become the Internet’s curator of choice, but then again it may not have to. Like the horseshoe crab, StumbleUpon has quietly survived through ten years of shifting trends (which, in Internet years, might as well be 450 million years). And its ability to adapt to whatever comes its way, makes it a likely candidate to survive ten more.