One year ago, the search engine Cuil exploded on the launchpad. Hyped as a “Google-killer,” the site stumbled as its servers crashed and its algorithms spat out irrelevant search results.
Now, the Menlo Park, CA, startup hopes to stage a comeback in part by being the first search engine to pass search queries through users’ social networks to generate socially enhanced search results as a companion to regular ones. If, for example, a user searches for the band Green Day–and if she has allowed Cuil to access her Facebook account or any other social networking account–she’ll see a special box on the results page, showing those in her network who like Green Day and similar bands. The feature is expected to go live by the end of August.
“We are trying to leverage the information found on users social networks to enhance search results. This is similar to what Amazon or eBay already does: ‘People who bought this book, also liked this one,’ ” says Seval Oz Ozveren, Cuil’s vice president of finance and business development. “I think there has been a lot of buzz about this whole idea of social search, but nobody has actually done it to date.”
Of course, many social-networking sites already let users search within their networks. And other search engines are trying to expand into social networks. A search company called Worio, for example, offers a Facebook application that generates recommended Web links, akin to search results, based on analyses of the news feeds and other information from a user’s social network. If several of your friends live in or are talking about Miami, for example, Worio might provide Miami-centric links. The Cuil foray will be different: it will present the social network search returns aside the general ones.
It’s far from clear whether Cuil stands much chance of killing off any competitors with its move into social search, says Dan Weld, a computer scientist and search researcher at the University of Washington. However, he says, it’s well established that websites tied to trusted members of people’s social networks are more likely to be seen as particularly relevant.
“Statistics show that people, especially young people, are much, much more likely to click on a URL if they see it in a blog or Tweet from someone they trust. This clearly has a big impact on Web marketing and is leading a number of companies to develop tools to track and target these social influencers,” he says. “But whether it will really jive with search isn’t as clear to me.”