One day in December I was visiting family and picked up my niece Xander from daycare. We had to leave before her balloon got turned into an animal. It was disappointing. So when we got back to her house, I pulled out my iPhone and showed her an app called Aardvark. We asked Aardvark how we could turn one long balloon into a balloon animal. My niece jumped up and down with excitement every time we got an iPhone push notification that someone out on the internet had an answer to offer. The first 3 people said “draw eyes on it and call it a snake.” That was funny the first time. Then, someone came through with a great link to good instructions for making a balloon animal. We made one, we were happy and proud, and we’d become the kind of people who knew how to make balloon animals.
A month later, Xander was visiting my house and we gave her a package of balloons. She whipped up a giraffe, a horse and a princess crown in minutes. Her mom asked her how she did it and you know what she said? “The Aardvark taught me how to do it!” Google announced today that it bought the company that made that iPhone app. It feels like some closure on my past year of hunting the story of the Aardvark, both personally and professionally.
I’ve asked for and received from Aardvark advice on cooking, home repair, what color shirt to wear on TV, whether I can easily catch a cab at a particular BART stop and how to make balloon animals.
Today Google officially announced the acquisition of Aardvark and its availability in Google Labs. I thought I’d take this opportunity to share a few stories about my year following this company and using its service. There’s no knowing how much attention the project will get inside Google, so this may be a case of “it was fun while it lasted.” But it sure was fun. And perhaps this acquisition won’t be the last we hear of Aardvark, after all.
Founded by ex-Google employees, here’s how Aardvark describes its team that built the system: “Over 2009, the company built an amazing technical team of over twenty people, including engineers from each of Silicon Valley’s major technology companies, four AI Ph.D.s, and founders from a dozen different successful startups.” Those people are all Google employees now and have a tidy pile of money.
How Aardvark Works
I love telling people about Aardvark. It’s interesting, easy to understand and makes almost everyone raise their eyebrows, whether in intrigue or skepticism. Here’s how it works: you get an invite from a friend and that friend says you are someone who knows about music, PHP, Portland, Oregon and barbecue. Then, you accept the invitation and say “I also know about skateboarding and training flea circuses.” So Aardvark tags you as a person who knows about those things.
Then, you can ask Aardvark any question you can think of, through Instant Messaging, iPhone, web or Twitter interfaces. The system looks at the text of your question, figures out what the topic is, then goes looking for someone to answer it. Aardvark seeks out people who are tagged as knowing about the topic of your question, are most socially-close to your immediate circle of friends (on Twitter, Facebook or Aardvark), who are available at that very moment via IM or iPhone and who have been rated in the past as good people to answer questions, who have the same propensity to use or avoid obscenity as you do, and a number of other criteria. Aardvark then pings those most-qualified people to ask if they are available to answer your question. If they say they are, it acts as an intermediary, delivering your question and bringing you back answers. The vast majority of questions are answered to the satisfaction of the people who asked them within 5 minutes. It’s amazing.
There’s all kinds of technology under the hood, too. The service watches what you’re Tweeting about if you’ve associated your Twitter account, for example, and considers you particularly qualified to answer questions about topics you’ve been discussing most recently on Twitter. It really is an amazing system, from the rapid text analysis to the people-sorting to the well-thought-out user experience.
Aardvark’s investors got a little bit of money out of the deal, but seeing one of the leading examples of what some people believe is the future of search (social search) sell for a mere $50 million does raise questions. With a total of $1.3 billion invested in various companies, lead backer August Capital is probably disappointed at this small exit, even if it is nearly 10X the $6 million that Aardvark had raised.
The price may well be based on the company’s failure to find a substantial number of users. Aardvark said earlier this month that it had fewer than 100,000 registered users. So be it. The founders will now return to Google, their former employer, with a powerful proof of concept, an eye for the huge Google user base and several million dollars in each of their pockets. Maybe they’ll continue to work on Aardvark itself and maybe they won’t. Only time will tell.
In the mean time, I’ve had a great time using Aardvark and have even put it to work for me professionally.
Last October I was walking down the street in San Francisco after lunch, headed back to the Moscone Center to see what was rumored to be a big announcement at the Web 2.0 Summit. Microsoft was going to announce that it cut a deal with Twitter to include Tweets in Bing search results. The much more connected Kara Swisher broke the news and I was trying to think of how to add value to the conversation with my coverage. So I put out a tweet: “Are there any User Experience experts at Web 2.0 who can talk to me about Bing/Twitter integration?”
By the time I sat down on the floor of the crowded convention hall before the announcement, I hadn’t gotten a single reply on Twitter. So I decided to fire up Aardvark. I asked it by IM, “are there any UX pros available right now to give me a live reaction to some news about to break?”
I was quickly delivered 3 suitable User Experience design professionals from around the country, asking me how they could help, through the Aardvark IM interface. I typed, copied and pasted as fast as I could – sending them the link to bing.com/twitter as soon as it was available, getting their thoughts, asking follow-up questions, separating three live interviews in one chat stream (chatting with Aardvark) into three separate interview chunks of text. It was crazy! I typed and thought and parsed as fast as I possibly could and then boom – within minutes of the announcement being over, I had a blog post up. Three User Experience professionals react to the way that the first major search engine to do so integrated the Twitter stream. It was quite a rush and something I couldn’t have done in any other way, without Aardvark.
We all knew that Aardvark was born and raised to be sold, probably to Google. When Michael Arrington broke the news 2 months ago that Aardvark was in talks with Google, it wasn’t a surprise. Nor was it a surprise that TechCrunch broke the story, Arrington has held an annual summer event at the offices of August Capital, Aardvark’s lead investor, for years. He’s very connected to the circle of people around Aardvark, as he is with hot Silicon Valley startups quite often.
A few days after that news came out, Aardvark CEO Max Ventilla was a guest on Leo Laporte’s show This Week in Tech. I ended up butting in far too much, explaining Vark and telling stories in the TWiT chat room that Leo asked Max about live on the show. I was a little worried that Max was going to get tired of me. I’d been trading emails with him, cursing him for giving exclusives to other media outlets, interviewing him at length for our research report on the future of the Real-Time Web and just generally being a harassing fan and overeager news blogger.
After the show, I shot him an email anyway. I told him that I’m not connected enough to break the news that Aardvark is about to sell, but I’d like to try to out-write my competitors. Just like the New York Times writes obituaries for famous people before they die, I’d like to spend some time with him so I can write the story of Aardvark ahead of time, before it gets acquired.
He told me there was no rush, that nothing was really happening, but agreed to schedule a call. We scheduled some time, but that morning a pipe exploded in the basement of my house. I emailed him and said I’d reschedule sometime soon.
That was two weeks ago. I never got to dive deep into the story of Aardvark, before it got acquired, and now there’s no telling what the future will bring for the company. But I did have a great time chasing Aardvark around in my personal and professional life over the last year. I know how to make a mean sweet potato and butternut squash soup thanks to Aardvark, and I’m not afraid to put certain Arm and Hammer products on my carpet to vacuum up, even if they aren’t labeled for it explicitly. Thanks, Aardvark community.
These days I haven’t been responding to my Aardvark IMs as much as I used to. I used to answer lots of questions, so now I get a lot of questions. Most of them are on topics I have no interest in. I spent the end of last year chasing down the next social search company that caught my fancy, the then-unlaunched Quora, built by some of the very first people to join and leave Facebook in the early days. I posted the first screenshots of Quora and use it regularly still, but as a web technology writer it’s my job to be looking for the next new thing.
I still enjoy Aardvark and I love the ideas behind it. We’ll see what happens to it at Google, but if absolutely nothing else: my niece and I now know how to make balloon animals. I think that’s very cool.
Congrats on your sale, team Vark, and good luck changing the world of search at Google.