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Yesterday, a new search engine made some waves on the Inter-nets. Called Aardvark, it’s splash was accompanied by a move borrowed from Google‘s playbook — publication of a paper outlining the theory behind the service, which was submitted to and accepted by WWW2010, this year’s version of the same meeting at which Sergey Brin and Larry Page presented their paper entitled, “Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine” back at WWW1998.

The paper Aardvark’s team published is called “Anatomy of a Large-Scale Social Search Engine.” And the URL of the search engine itself? It’s http://vark.com.

The metaphors of Aardvark vary from those of Google. Instead of a Library metaphor centered on documents, with authority derived through document linkages, Aardvark uses a Village metaphor centered on people you know, with intimacy and knowledge generating trust.

Aardvark has actually been around since 2007, but didn’t really get out into users’ hands until this past summer. According to TechCrunch:

  • As of October 2009, Aardvark had 90,361 users, of whom 55.9% had created content (asked or answered a question). The site’s average query volume was 3,167.2 questions per day, with the median active user asking 3.1 questions per month. Interestingly, mobile users are more active than desktop users. The Aardvark team attributes this to users wanting quick, short answers on their phones without having to dig for anything. They also think people are more used to using more natural language patterns on their phones.
  • The average query length was 18.6 words (median of 13) versus 2.2-2.9 words on a standard search engine.  Some of this difference comes from the more natural language people use (with words like “a”, “the”, and “if”).  It’s also because people tend to add more context to their queries, with the knowledge that it will be read by a human and will likely lead to a better answer.
  • 98.1% of questions asked on Aardvark were unique, compared with between 57 and 63% on traditional search engines.
  • 87.7% of questions submitted were answered, and nearly 60% of them were answered within 10 minutes.  The median answering time was 6 minutes and 37 seconds, with the average question receiving two answers.  70.4% of answers were deemed to be ‘good’, with 14.1% as ‘OK’ and 15.5% were rated as bad.
  • 86.7% of Aardvark users had been asked by Aardvark to answer a question, of whom 70% actually looked at the question and 38% could answer.  50% of all members had answered a question (including 75% of all users who had ever actually interacted with the site), though 20% of users accounted for 85% of answers.

Of course, I had to try it out. Given the fact that the link from their blog to the original Google paper landed me on a confusing page that wanted money for the paper, I thought a fair test would be to ask Aardvark where I could find a free version of the Brin/Page paper. Aardvark is supposed to specialize in natural language search, so this would be another thing to test. In brief, here’s how it works:

  1. You go to http://vark.com and enter a search statement or query
  2. You’re asked to either connect in with Facebook Connect or register (I used Facebook Connect)
  3. Once the Facebook handshakes are done, you see who else you know who is also on Aardvark (Jill and Mitch for me)
  4. It then asks you whether you know some other people (I knew one), and then you provide a topic you think you know about (I chose cycling)

I entered my question in natural language (“Where can I find a free copy of ‘Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Search Engine’?”) and waited. Query results are delivered via email.

About two minutes later, I received an email from Renaud, a 33-year-old male from Geneva, Switzerland, who suggested I search Google Scholar for the paper I was seeking.

I almost fell out of my chair laughing. Talk about honesty! Of course a social search engine will tell you to search Google! I loved it.

However, he was wrong. I searched Google Scholar for the paper, and could only find a version I could buy. Renaud hadn’t noticed my request for a free version. So, I responded that his answer wasn’t helpful. About 30 seconds later, he responded again, this time with a link to a free version of the paper at Stanford. About 45 seconds after that, another guy, this one from North Carolina, responded to my first inquiry with that same Stanford link.

Overall, it felt fine to get results like this, but it didn’t feel intimate or social. I didn’t know either of these guys, nor was it clear why they received my query. They might just be earning a few pennies every time they get a positive response. (A later question — “What’s a great Valentine’s Day gift idea?” was answered by a 27-year-old male in the Phillipines, who recommended “the one that the receiver will love and will remember you best! a hand made gift is superb!” Oh-kay . . .

Another male (are all Aardvarks male?) from Venezuela gave me this answer for a good Valentine’s Day gift idea:

Well, that varies greatly from person to person. Usually, the best gifts are small. I mean, a friend of mine once said that her now ex-boyfriend would either do something great as a gift, or do nothing, and she wished that he would realize that sometimes little details are far more effective. What she means is that, well, maybe a hand-written letter could work. Maybe a home-cooked meal. It doesn’t have to be something big to be something great and worth remembering. Cheers!

I really enjoyed how this answer involved a couple that had broken up. I mean, social search may be worth it just for the pathos!

I can see something with Aardvark’s workflow functioning especially well in the mobile space, when you just want to file the query, and waiting for a response fits the mobile lifestyle. It seemed kind of retrograde with a full browser in front of me, but not that bad.

The user interface of Aardvark is nice. The emails are fun to use, and the feedback loops make sense. I haven’t been asked to answer a query yet. It will be interesting to see how that part works someday. Some people are already speculating about “participation fatigue” being Aardvark’s Achilles heel.

It’s not clear if Aardvark will be assembling these queries into a database of answers, but the site does log questions you’ve asked and answers you’ve given, so it seems like the pieces are there.

Also, I wonder how things like search engine optimization (SEO) will work with social search. How do you engineer people to prefer something specific? Or maybe it’s OK if SEO is threatened. It’s an expense line we could all do without, isn’t it?

Aardvark seems to realize the picture of Facebook as a search engine that people have speculated might lie at the heart of that company’s commercial dreams. Yet Facebook is allowing Aardvark to use Facebook Connect to populate its service with users. Is there an acquisition coming?

Ultimately, 12 years after Google debuted, and a decade of huge profits and a bevy of interrelated systems later, can any search engine create enough of a competitive edge?

Let me go enter those questions into Aardvark. I might get an answer emailed to me in a few years, once the answers are known.

(Thanks to HR for the pointer.)

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


5 Thoughts on "A Social Search Engine Approacheth, and Its Name Is Aardvark"

Thanks for the post on Aardvark! It was interesting reading your initial reactions to the service. I’d love to hear any other feedback that you or your readers have – alison@aardvarkteam.com

– Alison @ Aardvark

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