The search technology behind failed social search engine Worio became the guts of the successful Zite app, which was recently acquired by CNN. Similarly Taptu, which began as a mobile search engine in the pre-iPhone era (2006), did almost the identical thing and is hoping to follow Zite’s lead.
Originally Taptu was a search engine for feature phones and low-end smartphones. It then morphed into a search engine for the “touch friendly” mobile web, indexing only sites that looked good touch-screen smartphones. But as smartphone apps proliferated and gained traction, and as Google came to dominate browser-based mobile search, the company took its search technology and, like Worio, put it behind a “social news reader” for smartphones and tablets (with increasing emphasis on tablets).
The company initially built branded iOS and Android apps for handsets and later tablets that featured content aggregation and personalization. However the “social news” segment for tablets is getting increasingly crowded with Flipboard, AOL Editions, Yahoo Livestand (not yet launched), Pulse, News.me and Zite. Accordingly Taptu is shifting again and now offering APIs to third party publishers and developers to enable them to aggregate content and create their own social news sites and apps.
Taptu also announced a small new round of financing ($3.5 million) last week. It’s preparing to announce a partnership with a significant publisher that will be the first client of the new platform. I spoke last week with CEO Mitch Lazar who previously ran Yahoo’s mobile business in Europe.
He was unable to reveal the identity of the publisher but was upbeat about Taptu’s opportunity and prospects for the new approach. When I asked him about competitive software tools that create tablet apps from existing web or print content Lazar argued that Taptu’s search technology and capabilities give it an edge and are more powerful than competitive tablet “conversion” tools.
This may well be a path to success and ultimately an acquisition for Taptu. The company said that it will continue to maintain its own branded apps. However for those apps to succeed and continue to gain adoption, the cluttered UI will need to be cleaned up and streamlined. This was one of the reasons that Zite was picked up by CNN: it had compelling technology under the hood but the company also created a polished and intuitive user experience.
Kosmix, recently acquired by Wal-Mart, is yet another example of a search engine turned content aggregator, compelled to “pivot” when the company found it was unable to gain traction in the traditional search market. I’m sure we’ll see more such examples of “search” startups that need to shift into adjacent areas to gain adoption. Do@ may be next.