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Is Volunia Italy’s answer to Google — or just hot air?

You can forgive Massimo Marchiori for wanting his moment in the sun. After all, it’s fifteen years since the Italian academic created Hyper Search, a system for ranking web pages that proved a great inspiration for Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s early attempts in online search.

But while the Google (s GOOG) founders went on to become dotcom billionaires at the head of one of the Internet’s most powerful companies, Marchiori turned down the offer of a job with them and returned to Italy to work on his own projects.

And today, finally, he unveiled what it is he’s been tinkering away on all this time: a social search engine called Volunia that he claims represents the “third generation of search.”

And what is it? Well, that’s hard to tell.

Not only is the service not yet open to the public — although Volunia promises a hundred thousand users will be let in today — but the hour-long press conference to launch the site was held entirely in Italian, struggled with technical problems and had very little in the way of actual demos to show us what the service really did.

The best visuals were a handful of ropey screenshots that suggested little about what was on offer. Most reports seem to repeat the rhetoric without offering any significant insight into how the site works.

So given the lack of hard information, here’s what we have so far:

Volunia is a search engine that indexes and maps out the web and then ranks it through a mixture of algorithms and the opinions of visitors. Marchiori alluded to the fact that it was intended to be like GPS for the web — but said it does not use semantic technology.

At the same time, Volunia provides a place for social interaction in a sidebar that lets users talk to each other and to the owners of the websites they are visiting; a service that seems to be half chatroom, half SideWiki, the universal commenting engine introduced — and then killed — by Google.

And that, for all of the words, seems to be the heart of it.

It’s a search engine that lets people talk to each other while they surf around the web. Marchiori was keen to stress that he wasn’t trying to take Google on, and intended to simply offer a new way of doing things, but the comparisons will inevitably be made.

I’m not going to pass judgment on the product itself, however, not least for the simple reason that I haven’t seen it in action.

But there are a few conceptual problems I have with the project as it stands.

First, there is the simple question of whether it can live up to its own hype. The approach taken so far leaves it wide open to criticism of over-promising, with Volunia doing some serious PR ahead of the launch, mainly with the Italian press and odd little pre-announcements. Such bluster usually end in disappointment — a perfect reason why you should never launch your startup in the press. Who remembers Cuil, the site that promised to take Google head on but turned into a $33 million turkey?

Second, the idea that social search has not been done is only true if you have a very particular view of what social search is. Google and Yahoo have talked a lot about it over the years — and Google has finally got around to seriously implementing that vision with its awkwardly named Search Plus Your World features. But the reality is that social search is something different today than it was to this previous generation of web companies. Right now, Facebook and Twitter are social search, because they are where people interact.

That doesn’t look much like traditional web search — certainly not the sort of search engine that Marchiori has spent his life building — but it’s hard to tell whether Volunia is a step forward or a move back.

And third, regardless of how good your service is, does it work to compete like this? Google has slugged its way to the top, and seems more likely to be unseated by antitrust investigations than straight rivals like Bing. Facebook, meanwhile, is preparing to fill up its coffers from an IPO that will probably make it unassailable in the social space as we understand it. Once somebody has won a market, is it worth fighting them on their own ground — or is it better to simply try and work out where the next big developments online are going to come from?

The Volunia team, backed by serial entrepreneur Mariano Pireddu, may be playing down their attempt to revolutionize the world. Marchiori explicitly told journalists at the press conference “not to expect the moon”.

But evidence suggests they think they can make a significant impact. By my count, judging by the various landing pages, the site appears to be launching in a dozen languages, including English, Chinese, Spanish and Japanese. That means it’s either ambitious or covering as many bases as possible — or both. It is not something that can be dismissed as merely an experiment.

Reaction online seems mixed at best. To me, everything from Volunia so far seems to suggest it’s trying to solve a problem that nobody needs to solve right now. I can’t wait to see it open up and find out whether I’m right or wrong.

30 Responses to “Is Volunia Italy’s answer to Google — or just hot air?”

  1. With due respect to Mr Marchiori’s abilities in this field he is embarking, he should have worked at Google for a couple of years. With some insight on how Google search engine works and from Google experience, take the exit route and revolutionize the kind of search engine that he envisions.

  2. Georgios Tzenichristos

    This basically seems to be a chat-enabled SideWiki (thank God Google killed it). It is not social search, it doesn’t help you find things more easily or more accurately (far from it), it is a way to create a chat room on any website (just like SideWiki, but with chat instead of living comments).
    Sidewiki created a backlash, as it impinged on websites’ intellectual property and allowed irresponsible commentators to potentially defame and deface websites. I am not sure whether the legal basis of what Volunia is doing is sound.

  3. Georgios Tzenichristos

    I was very keen to try Volunia and I have to say I was instantly disappointed. Volunia allows you to search the web (really, really badly, nothing like Google) and then, when you visit a site, it allows you to chat with other people on a chat sidebar located on the right hand side of the screen. On the sidebar people talk nonsense, just a cacophony of mixed messages about anything and nothing. One chatter put it very succinctly: “this looks like a site straight out of the 90s” and I could not agree more. What an embarrassment… I think Prof Marchiori should have taken that Google job offer…

  4. Lucilla Massa

    Volunia is a meta in respect to the entire web. As you browse the toolbar etc stays on top in the browser and gets stats and pages you visit, gives an high level map automagically extracted.
    This is on top of all web sites, included fb and google.
    A goldmine for investors and ads.

  5. Very interesting project, fresh air, I can’t wait to see it in action. I like the idea to share opinions/give and receive feedback on website as I do on any place I could visit (pubs,museums,companies…) .
    People in the comments down here say “it is trying to solve a problem which doesn’t exist” they argue that there is no need and at the same time they feel the need to share their comments with others on this webpage, that is exactly what Volunia is all about. :)

  6. Leonardo da Vinci

    You have to understand (I know it is hard for americans!) that good ideas dont mean necessarily big money. The way americans evaluate life is really childish (just money, moneyand money). The choice MArchiori made is very well respected by moral people, with a level of knowledge a bit higher than Larry PAge & C. In fact, google guys realized the best way to control people and to reduce freedom… for 30 dollars… It doesnt sound an utopia to me…

  7. Bobbie Johnson

    Hey, thanks for all the comments — nice to hear that Volunia has generated some strong opinions on both sides of the aisle. They must be doing something right.

    As I said, I realize I’m open to criticism for not having tried it. Fair enough Luca, Jux, Nicola. I’d like to try it, if they’ll open it up to me!

    However, that’s why I didn’t engage with the product itself (which has generated very mixed reactions as far as I can see) but instead tried to focus on the things I can see — which, I’d point out, are the same things *everyone in the world* can see. What’s the strategy? What’s the philosophy? What’s the problem it’s trying to solve? What does it mean by ‘social’? Why would somebody use it? How does it enter the market? These are very important issues and if you think they don’t matter, you’re kidding yourself.

    The service seems to have gotten a free ride in the Italian press, and that’s no surprise. It happens. But you can’t say something is “the social engine that reinvents Google” (as Reppublica did) without asking questions of how it’s going to achieve that lofty goal. I’m familiar enough with projects that launch this way — lots of build up, press launch before public launch, big claims — and then fail to deliver. We’ve covered them before on GigaOm, whether they are American (like, say, Color) or European (note to Jux: I’m not American).

    In the end, though, I am more than happy to be proven wrong, and once I get a chance to use it I will write about it some more.

  8. volumia’s mission is very ambitious, and it’s not to beat google on his field but to change the way we interact with the internet websites. Having a makret share in search engine is not a mission impossible since google has not been innovating since too many years, looking like a microsoft of modern ages. Marchiori mentioned a beta with 100k of users, so the product is mature and it’s not just air. On the other side we all know facebook’s limits, and people ARE looking for something different. There’s a market, if volumia will be the answer it mostly depends by how well they execute their ideas and how quick they get a critical mass.

  9. volumia’s mission is very ambitious, and it’s not to beat google on his field but to change the way we interact with the internet websites. Getting a makret share in search engine is not a mission impossible since google has not been innovating since too many years, looking like a microsoft of modern ages. Marchiori mentioned a beta with 100k of users, so the product is mature, has already a good visibility and therefore it’s not just air. On the other side we all know facebook’s limits, and people ARE looking for something different. There’s a market there, if volumia will be the answer to it,it mostly depends by how well they execute their ideas and how quick they get a critical mass.

  10. The fact that this article doesn’t consider at all the great potential of developing behind the idea of this new search engine, and only criticize it, is really narrow minded and supports one more time the fact that the US is always jealous of any foreign new invention, at least until they copy that….

  11. I like the idea of a way to interact with other visitors on a page. Question is how would it be monitored for security and safety reasons?

    I’m always curious who will rival G. The bigger you are the harder you fall… eventually…

  12. Nebil Kriedi

    A problem which doesn’t exists?

    Do you really think that searching for something on the web ends up on showing a dozen of links like most search engine does?
    I personally think that your search ends when you find the CONTENT you’re looking for, not just a stupid and chaotic html.

    For what I saw, volunia seems to be be designed for that kind of search, a search which brings you straight on the content by following your navigation inside the website.

    The idea behind its design (awful) it’s brilliant to me and I hope the execution would be fine too.

    • Stefano De Troia

      I think there’s no way to involve people using something new but with nothing new compare to google (except you have to subscribe just to chat with someone else). I think 90% of people searching in google is pretty happy about that, that’s the meaning of “problem which doesn’t exist”… if volunia will be the best searching site for 10% of surfer will be a FAIL… it’s just my opinion… :-)

  13. I am a power user too and tried it.

    You said well, it does look like it is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist yet.

    But anyway, I hope it could make an impact, since we don’t want to have just a Google to take over the whole market…

  14. just tried volunia as a “power user” and i dont really get it.
    I think its a mix of search engine, that is feeded on user content and conections and media, with a hint of social networking and chat room.
    i just submited my websites in case it goes “boom” but didnt give it much time as it might go “kapoom”

  15. It’s not a search engine.. It’s a data viz interaction project .. The simcity of websearch. ;-)

    A way to redesign web 1.0 experience with a flavour of 2.0 directly into the web (and not into the client)

    Imho Twitter And fb are on a different market..