HeyStaks: Socially Customized Search

HeyStaks is a social search engine, which aims to allow users to use their social graph to make their Internet searches more accurate and more relevant. The Dublin-based startup was founded by Peter Briggs and Maurice Coyle, who completed a PhD together, and Professor Barry Smyth, who was their PhD supervisor in University College Dublin.

HeyStaks, currently available for the Firefox and Chrome browsers, and for the iPhone, with Android, Internet Explorer and dedicated iPad versions in development, brings together their research in the area of social research and recommendation to fill the gap between current recommendation technology and web searching.

“There’s a missing link there between web search and these recommender social systems,” says Dublin native Peter Briggs.

“We think that it’s quite an obvious thing that your social graph can have a very positive influence on your search results, and so we wanted to delve into that and bring that down into a product which we could get people using to improve web search results.

“The first thing to realise is that we’re not actually a standalone search engine. What we do is we plug into existing search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo!, so you still search using the same search engine that you’re used to using.”

HeyStaks’ founders did initially consider the idea of setting up their own search engine, but Peter acknowledges that, “people just want to keep on using what they’ve always used, they always go back to Google, at the end of the day. We realised that, rather then fight the uphill battle of creating an entirely new destination site, we were better to work with existing search engines. There’s no reason why we can’t just integrate with what’s there already and let people search as they want to.”

Peter believes that there is considerable scope for improving the search experience, whether the user is using Google, Bing, or any other search engine, “we think that everybody wants better search results.”

“What we find is that there’s actually a lot of failed results with people when they’re using Google. Up to 50% of the time when people search on Google they don’t click any results. And people have sort of adapted to that; they change their query a bit, add some terms, remove some terms, and they do find what they’re looking for because Google will get them there in the end. But the point is we think there is a lot of room for improvement there.

“When you’re looking for a recommendation for a restaurant to go to or for a movie to see you often end up asking people you trust or people with similar taste to you, and ideally you’d be able to ask a few people to get a kind of a majority view on the best place to go to get a certain type of food, and so that’s what we bring to web search.”

HeyStaks works by organising search results or topics into what they call staks. “You can create a stak on any topic that you like or you can join existing ones”, offers Peter. If you have joined a stak on places to eat in Dublin, a search in your web search engine will reveal the standard results, and also the results from that stak. By including your social graph through inviting Facebook or Twitter friends, you can ensure the results are more reflective of your peer group.

“The difference between these HeyStaks results and the standard Google results are that the HeyStaks ones have already been verified by real people, these are results that people like, and have found to be useful in the past, and so you have piece of mind there that it’s not just pages that have been heavily search engine optimised or paid listings.”

Peter points to Google’s +1 and Bing’s incorporation of Facebook “likes” into its search engine as examples of major search players going down a similar road to HeyStaks, but is confident that the socially-customised element of HeyStaks sets it apart from the crowd.

“The difference between what we do and what they do is we allow you to segregate, to partition your social graph based on your interests and the interests of your friends or co-workers. So, for example, you might not trust everybody that you know to provide you with movie recommendations, but you might have a few trusted friends where you know your interests overlap quite a lot, so you can decide to share a movie stak with them or join one that they’ve created and you’ll only get recommendations from those trusted people.”

For now, the priorities for HeyStaks include the completion of the versions for Internet Explorer, and Android, as well as a dedicated iPad app, but the main focus is on user adoption, “getting HeyStaks out there to as many people as possible,” according to Peter.

When adoption has reached a certain level, “maybe year two or thereabouts,” the process of monetising the business will commence, and Peter believes Heystaks has an advertising model which will, “provide an unprecedented level of engagement between advertisers and their users,” and will, “give them a much better engagement with users, far beyond their own destination site.”

Until that advertising model can be implemented, the HeyStaks team are happy to take advantage of the facilities offered them by their current Dublin base on the NovaUCD programme. “It’s just an excellent centre in terms of the potential for mixing with other people who have really great ideas.”

“There’s a really good atmosphere in terms of mingling with other people with entrepreneurial interests, but it also provides a really good range of services for an early stage company. Basically, we have far better facilities here than we would be able to get anywhere else around Dublin. They’ve just provided a great space for a startup company.”

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