The launch of Massimo Marchiori‘s new search project, Volunia (live streaming tomorrow, Feb. 6, at 12 CET on the University of Padua site), could not come at a more interesting time for the discussion of what the Web will look like in the next five years.
This weekend we have been variously entertained by the discussion between Robert Scoble, John Battelle, Dave Winer and many others about whether the Web we have known and loved for the past 15 years or so is melting away, like polar ice caps (Battelle’s metaphor), under the heat of our planetary addiction for Facebook’s “walled garden” (an odd term from the ’90s era of AOL, but one that is making a far bigger comeback – under Zuckerberg’s leadership – than we ever thought it could).
And that’s just the PC- and browser-based Web, and now the Android-based Web, the one that was defined by Google and that Google defined. But search is changing, morphing beyond recognition. As a user, one of my most common search question is “where on my iPad is that app I downloaded two months ago but whose name I don’t remember”. As a business leader, I need to deal with whole new domains for SEO, such as ensuring the in-Market and in-iTunes Store ranking of my company’s apps. As a strategist, I wonder whether the whole debate between the open search model and the social silos model is somewhat overblown: they’re really two sides of the same coin, and the heft of that coin is the solid metal of advertising, the business that funded search for years and that is funding social today, as Facebook’s IPO filing confirmed just last week.
So, is Volunia going to be a search platform or a social platform or both? “Seek & meet”, says the company’s tagline, hinting at both. But it does not really matter. It is going to be – sometime, at a later stage, post-launch – an advertising platform. It will need to be. Because Marchiori’s backers, led by Mariano Pireddu, have reportedly invested a couple of million euros in the project; and even with the best researchers and engineers, even at Padua-level salaries and not Silicon Valley- level salaries, a couple of million barely gets you a workable beta, if at all.
So, consider Volunia a nascent advertising platform. To attract advertisers, it will need to attract eyeballs. Details are hazy, but today’s paper edition of Nòva, the Sunday supplement of Il Sole 24 Ore, reveals some hints (and promises a video with Marchiori showing off his creature, on the site later today).Many are rooting for Volunia, but early screenshots seem disappointing. The search box searches for sites, within a site, or for Volunia users; you can see which users have been to a certain page, and which ones are there now, with an interface oddly reminiscent of the Rockmelt browser. You can comment and chat on a Web page with other users (Google Sidewiki, anyone?) You can make friends with people who share your interests, based on the pages they visit. According to Pireddu, the engine can be used anonymously if one wishes, users will not be profiled, and navigation data will not be tracked – so there is a bit of DuckDuckGo in there, for now.
If Marchiori and Pireddu get traction, they will be able to raise serious money and build up their dream. If the Volunia beta disappoints (and disappointments loom large in both search and social: remember Cuil? remember Color?), they will have to pivot very quickly and downscale to lesser ambitions. But I am an optimist, and an Italian: so I wish them all the best and I look forward to being wowed by their creature.
(Updates: screenshots here; video – in Italian – here.)