The new search: Discovery sites

AllMyFaves and others like it aim to displace search engines by making it easier to find interesting and useful content online.

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By Beth Kowitt, reporter

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NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Roy Pessis decided the Web needed a site like AllMyFaves when he saw how his father used the Internet. Pessis' dad, who was 62 at the time, would go to the same five or six sites and got frustrated typing in complicated URLs.

Pessis' solution: A Web site where, with one click, a user could access hundreds of top Web pages categorized by type. Now it's his dad's homepage.

"It was very intuitive for him," he says. But Pessis designed AllMyFaves not just for users like his dad; he wants it to be everyone's go-to site. He's not there yet, but the site has been putting up some impressive numbers for an operation run by a five-person staff: in February AllMyFaves had 419,000 unique visitors, according to Web analytics company Compete. He says people are drawn to the site because it's an easy way to navigate the Web. "Many people don't know how to use the Internet," he says. "They have "search engine fatigue or they don't really know how to search."

With AllMyFaves, Israel-based Pessis and his brother Shachar have created what they call a "visual directory" of some of the Web's most popular sites. . It's light on text and heavy on images, with each site represented by its brand logo. Each brand falls under one of 11 categories -- Gaming, Car Rental, Insurance, etc. Click on the logo for FORTUNE, listed under Finance, and it takes you to Fortune.com.

AllMyFaves is not a site designed for search. Pessis doesn't want it to be, at least not yet. It's part of a burgeoning group of Web sites that are focusing on discovery on the Web. The Internet is not just a utility anymore, says Josh Bernoff, principal analyst at Forrester Research. Today people live through the 'net.

"The biggest problem of the Internet is also its greatest strength: It has everything on it," he says. "That makes it hard to find things. Search makes the Web usable, but it's not the only tool you've got."

Search works when you know what you're looking for. It can answer questions such as which movies are playing at my local theater? How do I make a soufflé? But what do you do when you don't know exactly what it is you want to find? What if you're interested in film and cooking more broadly? If you don't have an ultimate goal, the Web makes it hard to explore, which is what Pessis is trying to achieve with his site.

"It allows people to discover new things," he says. "These are sites that general users might not come across unless they hear about them from friends or family." Other companies working on Internet discovery projects include eBay's StumbleUpon and Microsoft, which, according to CNET, is internally testing a new visual search site called Viveri.

Some critics suggest that some current discovery sites are simply Web directories that don't do enough to help consumers really discover new applications and tools online. "[AllMyFaves] is surface level and that's not where search is going," says Mark Rolston, chief creative officer at Frog Design, a product design and branding consulting firm.

Pessis says that he is working on making the site more personalized and incorporating a search capability. Right now revenue comes from garnering a percentage of sales generated by AllMyFaves on ecommerce sites. But once a search component is developed, Pessis envisions companies bidding on specific key words in order to show up in results. Pessis wouldn't go into specifics on revenue.

The sites listed on AllMyFaves are primarily well known brands, picked by members of staff. Its "Weekly Faves" tab introduces users to content that might not already be on their radars. Recent mentions on Weekly Faves included a link to smittenkitchen.com, a blog about cooking in a tiny kitchen in New York, and crisisofcredit.com, which visualizes the credit meltdown. The site tracks clicks on these links to get a sense of visitors' preferences.

Forrester's Bernoff adds that while AllMyFaves involves discovery, it's not particularly groundbreaking. To him, the best sites for exploration involve some form of user participation in the picks. "Your friends are likely to be your best guide," he says, adding that the best recommendations are connected to people. "That's what makes them powerful."

A site that incorporates this social element is StumbleUpon, which takes discovery several steps further. Users can download the StumbleUpon toolbar extension into their Web browser. They select their interests and then give a thumbs up or thumbs down to the content StumbleUpon matches with their preferences. The more sites you rate, the more tailored results it gives you. Users can connect with people with similar interests and preferences by joining groups and tracking their friends' favorite sites.

Unlike Pessis' goal, StumbleUpon general manager Michael Buhr doesn't necessarily want his site to alter the way you search. To him, search and discovery are complementary. "We're not trying to change people's searching habits," he says. "We are just trying to augment those results."

StumbleUpon, which was launched in 2002 and acquired by eBay in 2007 for $75 million, is on track to have 7.4 million users by the end of the first quarter, a 55% growth year over year.

"We actually believe that discovery is going to be a big market opportunity," says Buhr. "How big, we don't know."  To top of page

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