Today, StumbleUpon unveiled a new feature that they call the "Explore Box." Still technically in beta testing, the new feature allows users to search for specific topics to stumble, for example, Lady Gaga, William Faulkner, or Tequila.
Until now, StumbleUpon allowed users to explore certain areas that most of the time remained relatively broad. Aside from the few specific "interest" categories like "Film Noir," users were only able to explore categories like "Alternative Rock," "Food," or "American Literature." StumbleUpon offered around 500 of these non-specific categories.
With the debut of the Explore Box, hundreds of thousands of more specific categories become available to users.
This afternoon, WebProNews got a chance to talk with Director of Communications Mike Mayzel and VP of marketing and business development Marc Leibowitz. We discussed the stumbling experience and how the new explore box fits in with their goals.
First off, the addition of a tool to make content discovery a little more specific is not a brand new idea for StumbleUpon. They said that they knew all along that this was a direction that they wanted to go. "A lot of engineering work was needed to make it possible," they said. It was just about making sure that they had the resources to make it a reality.
I asked them why they wanted to make a more targeted stumbling experience, to which they brought up user feedback. Users told them that they enjoy the "serendipity of exploring broad topics," but that it is sometimes "difficult to specify what they wanted to explore with precision."
The Explore Box definitely allows for a more precise search.
But StumbleUpon is not moving towards becoming a search engine, they said. "Stumbling has always been a companion to search." They added that it was a way to be surprised, to find things that you didn't know were out there. That randomness is at the core of what makes stumbling what it is.
They said that they "ultimately have no ambitions of making this a search replacement."
Search can sometimes be too specific, and StumbleUpon wants to leave some room for discovery. They discussed a "sweet spot," a one to three word query inside their Explore Box that will allow users some specificity of topic but not too much. Targeted, but still random.
When asked about long-term goals of this new way to stumble, Mike and Marc discussed accessibility. They want StumbleUpon to feel "more familiar to more people." People instinctively look for a box to type words into - that's the nature of our search engine dominated lives. Until now, you couldn't really do that with StumbleUpon (except for some users with a Firefox add-on).
"By enabling users to interact with StumbleUpon in this way, it will broaden the appeal to people used to using a box."
StumbleUpon's explore box runs on the same recommendation engine - one that's personalized. If two people enter the same query, let's say "Bacon," the content that each person sees will differ.
The Explore Box will not only improve the experience of those who want to stumble more specific topics, they say, but it will also "make recommendations better and better" for those using the service in it's traditional manner, through selecting less specific categories. The specificity of feedback that they receive via "likes" of content contained in more narrow categories will help them make everyone's results better.
Finally, I asked Mike and Marc about the newer content discovery engine on the block, the Google+ Sparks feature. Both are former Google employees and say that they have a "lot of respect for what they do there." I asked, more specifically, whether or not they saw Sparks as a direct competitor to StumbleUpon. They said that they aren't quite sure what Sparks wants to be at this early stage, and they're not entirely sure that Google does either.
Right now, they are just focused on what they're doing.
Have you tried the new Explore Box? What do you think about the new targeted stumbling? Let us know in the comments.