Aardvark “Help Engine” Opens To Wider Use

In private testing for the past few months, Aardvark is now opening its doors to more searchers today in conjunction with the South By Southwest conference. Also known as Vark, Aardvark is a “help engine” that allows people to send questions to friends and friends of friends and receive fast responses.

My companion piece, The Rise Of Help Engines: Twitter & Aardvark, goes into more depth about the new class of search engines I’m calling help engines and why.

Vark is designed to leverage existing social networks that its users have and route questions they have to the right friends or colleagues who can best answer. It can also route questions to “friends of friends” as needed.

I gave it a whirl last night and also talked with cofounder and CEO Max Ventilla, a former Googler, about the service. Ventilla isn’t the only Googler involved in the project. There five from Google in all, including former Google News product manager Nathan Stoll. Another five were formerly with Yahoo, Ventilla said and a further five come from other tech companies, giving the company currently 15 employees. It has funding from August Capital and from individual investors such as Sep Kamvar, Marc Andreesen and Jim Lanzone.

Here’s how it works, with commentary from Ventilla along the way.

When you sign-up through an invitation, Vark asks you to indicate three topics that you have expertise in, to start. I jotted down “search, Britain and Newport Beach.”

After being processed, I discovered that Vark also classified me as an expert in a number of other areas, including skateboarding. Would that I was an expert at that! (I’m still very much a beginner!). Where did these other tags come from? The person who invited me tagged me this way. And as you invite other people, you also are asked to tag them with at least three subject areas you believe they can answer questions about.

Not an expert? No worries. You can always add or remove more topics using settings within Vark. You can also set how often you wish to answer questions, such as “a couple of times a day” or “about once a week.”

How do you get questions sent to you? First, let’s talk about how you send questions out — and that involves Facebook.

When you enroll, you’re asked to let Vark access your Facebook account. This allows it to understand who your friends are, or at least those you’ve let friended on Facebook. It doesn’t contact these people. It simply registers that you’re associated with them, then checks its own database to see if any are on Vark. If they are, voila — they are now part of your friend network there. Send out a question, and they’ll be among the people to receive that — as will friends they have.

What, you’re going to hit potentially thousands of people all with a question? They’ll hate you! And you’ll be swamped with answers!

Relax. This is where Vark gets smart. Rather than message everyone with your question, it looks to those topics associated with each person to decide who might best answer it.

“We tap into your existing network. behaving like one of your actual contacts would to pass along to the right person,” said Ventilla. “It’s never broadcast. It’s only going to half a dozen people.”

Vark also tries to get the question out to the people who are closest to you, relationship-wise, to increase the degree of trust you might have in the response. How does it determine which of your friends are really your friends, if you might have hundreds? It uses a variety of factors such as how often you might co-occur with them in references or be seen to interact with them to make predictions, Ventilla said.

Questions are sent one of two ways. Vark pushes the IM method. You provide it with your instant messaging address on Google, AIM or Windows Live, then you simply IM your question to Vark.

I tested it out, typing into an IM window:

what’s a good external 1TB drive to use with either windows or mac that’s quiet and low power?

Within two minutes, I got back from “Josh M” this reply:

I just bought a WD My Book 1TB last week, and have been really happy with it. It’s not the lowest power (uses a wall wart) but it’s cheap and I’ve had good experience with My Book in the past. Are you looking for an unpowered one instead?

Notice how he asked me back a question. This is a key part of what Vark says makes it unique over traditional search engines, the fact that you can have a conversation as part of getting your answer. I wrote back to Vark, which in turn sent my response back to Josh:

thanks don’t want an unpowered one. just want one that’s smart enough to turn itself off when my computer’s off and also that doesn’t make fan noise like some i’ve had in the past. looked at the mybook, maybe i’ll look again.

And he responded back:

ah, yeah, it definitely turns itself off when not in use. I’m one of those people who hates the sound his DVR makes =) When it’s spinning, you can kind of hear it, but I use it primarily for backups, so it’s only spun up for ~1hr a day.

I was pretty impressed. I was brand new to Vark, with only 14 contacts in the system based on my Facebook import, yet it got my question out to a friend of a friend and quickly gave me an answer.

Ventilla says the system should work even better as my network grows, in that it would provide me with answers from more than one person.

“We shoot for 2 to 3 answers per question, depending on own internal measure of the quality of the answers that come back,” he explained.

So far, there are thousands of people already in the system, Ventilla said. That’s set to increase tomorrow when those attending SXSW will be allowed access. In addition, those already in the system will be allowed to send out more invitations than the current limit of 10 they have. Meanwhile, those who’ve requested access and are on the waitlist will be processed in the near future. Eventually, perhaps within a few months, open access to anyone will be provided. But access is limited for the time being so that Vark isn’t overwhelmed by rapid growth.

How’s it going? I’ve heard a few anecdotal reports of people very pleased with the service. Ventilla said about one quarter of users ask a question per week, with 5% asking on any given day. He’d like to see those figures double or triple. As for speed, he said about half the questions are answered in under 5 minutes, with the goal to be three-quarters answered in 2-3 minutes.

As said, there’s also an option to send questions via email — though that’s easily overlooked. An SMS option is in the works. But mainly, it’s IM that’s really pushed, which was a pain (for me), as I don’t regularly have IM on. Why not provide a nice clean box similar to what I get at Twitter, where I could enter a question?

Ventilla said a web interface would be coming, as might a browser toolbar, but Vark deliberately didn’t go the “search box” route to distinguish themselves from traditional search engines.

“We’re trying to redefine search. There are two ways you get information, off the web and from people in their normal lives. Google makes online information accessible to me, but no one’s made the information that’s in my friends’ heads accessible to me,” Ventilla explained.

Continuing on, he said:

“We’re working on the subjective search space, the one-third of queries where taste and context is hugely important to what you want, even if you use the same keywords like ‘hotel recommendation in london’,” Ventilla said, explaining further that in such a query, what would be the best hotels will differ from person to person — and perhaps be influenced by a conversation.

“Google and Yahoo and Microsoft are not failing on these kind of contextual queries because they don’t have smart people with smart tools. Most of the problem is the expectations people bring. Give them a clean white box, and they go into this anonymous mode. One of the main things we’ve done to position Aardvark is to put them in a channel [such as IM] where you interact with it,” Ventilla said.

I can understand and appreciate that. However, I also know people are using Twitter for searching (see How We Search With The Twitter “Help Engine”) — and I feel many of them are attracted to its simplicity. So I sure hope that Vark will move quickly on the browser interface. There are plenty of people who don’t IM, and as more and more people are getting used to asking questions via the Twitter box, it feels like Vark having a similar interface would help them capture some of those at Twitter.

Of course, Vark doesn’t really view Twitter as a competitor — and to be fair, Twitter certainly has not encouraged people to twitter for answers in the way that Vark is doing. But that’s what’s happening, even though Twitter lacks the “smarts’ that Vark has built in.

Ventilla also raised the issue of whether Twitter can scale as a question asking service. “If the 200 people you follow were all asking questions, the signal to noise ration would flip,” he said. There’s also the issue, which my Twitter survey supports, that if you don’t have enough followers, you might not get answers.

Both of these are real enough. But then again, I follow over 400 people, and I’m not overwhelmed. It’s noisy, not perfect, but it does work. Vark does have a more refined system to tap into your social network for answers, but habits have already been forming now.

Speaking of Twitter, you can’t import your followers list into Vark yet. Nor can you do that with LinkedIn. It’s all Facebook only, so far. That will change, though there’s no set date on when more networks will be added.

How about just letting people add friends directly? Vark specifically wanted to avoid this. “A lot of the beauty of the system is that it just works. You don’t need to do anything,” said Ventilla

Again, perhaps. Building up a new social network from scratch can be a pain for users and certainly for new start-ups social sites trying to gain adoption. But personally, I’d still like to see the ability to better shape my network — and I might be able to using some power users tools Ventilla said are in the works.

While I’m being picky, the name’s a bit confusing. First, some readers may have heard of Mechanical Zoo. That was an early name for Aardvark that Ventilla begs to be forgotten. “We are hereby dropping the name,” he said.

The company liked the name Aardvark because beginning with A, it puts them at the top of IM buddy lists, which they feel is super important. They also like that it doesn’t sound “robotic.” However, it turns out people have problems spelling “aardvark,” so they’ve gone with the URL of vark.com — which has lead to the nickname of Vark among many users. Me — I sense confusion will keep growing, especially if they get success to the degree that people talk about “varking” something. So I kind of want them to settle on Vark, even if it’s a the end of the alphabet.

One weakness in Vark’s system might be all that tagging of what you can answer. What if you don’t classify yourself correctly or in enough areas? What if someone classifies you incorrectly? Ventilla said that from even a single tag, Vark can begin to develop a profile of what you know about, especially by watching the type of questions you ask or answer.

How’s Vark going to make money? Ventilla said that the “overwhelming” number of questions involve some type of purchase decision or service need. So they’re looking at ways for links to particular products mentioned in or around answers to be sold on a cost-per-click or cost-per-acquisition basis.

Overall, the system shows a lot of promise. If Twitter has whetted the appetite for the ability to search “people not pages,” as Jim Lanzone puts it, Vark might have come along at the right time to capitalize on that.

Danny Sullivan is editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also oversees Search Engine Land’s SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series, maintains a personal blog called Daggle and can be followed on Twitter here.

See more articles by Danny Sullivan >

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