Ark’s people search engine banking on Facebook-Google rift

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Credit: Ark

You could search for business contacts on LinkedIn or high school classmates on Facebook, but San Francisco-based Ark thinks you should be able to search for all kinds of people in one place.

Presenting at the TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield today, CEO and co-founder Patrick Riley said his people search engine answers the question, “What would Google and Facebook build if they weren’t at war with each other?”

The startup entered the competition with a bit of a head start. Earlier this spring, Riley and his co-founder Yiming Liu, presented at Y Combinator’s Demo Day and last month it raised a $4.2 million seed round, reportedly among the largest seed rounds raised by a Y Combinator company. In the next two or three weeks, the company said today, it is aiming to release a mobile application. Both founders previously studied search at UC Berkeley’s School of Information.

My first reaction to the startup? What’s the point? LinkedIn adequately satisfies the professional use case and Facebook is already enough of a social stalking tool.

But during the demo, Riley described a need that doesn’t seem to be met by other social networks right now – or at least not as easily. His example involved a user from Nepal who moved to New York and wanted to find others originally from Katmandu with whom she could speak her native language. With Ark, she could search for people across Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, RenRen, Meetup and other networks. The company says it indexes more than one billion profiles from across the world’s top social networks.

The reason Ark says it can provide this service better than Facebook or Google (or another social network, for that matter) is because only a neutral third-party would be willing to pull information from and potentially boost traffic to other social networks. Riley also said that part of Ark’s “secret sauce” is its ability to link individual profiles across the different networks in a meaningful way and figure out the most reliable information from each network. (For example, he said, LinkedIn is the best source for an individual’s current place of employment as they’re more likely to update that site before other sites.)

When asked by the judges about its monetization plans, Riley said advertising is the most obvious possibility, especially given its ability to finely target users with the data it collects. But, recognizing that targeting becomes more sensitive as platforms move to mobile, he also said they’re considering a social commerce layer on top of the engine — a “Grubwithus”-style partnership with Living Social or Groupon.

Within the first week of its launch, more than a quarter of a million people signed up for the service and it now has nearly 16,000 users, Riley said. Engagement is also impressive, he added, with the average user spending 11 minutes on the site per session. (According to TechCrunch, Facebook “loosely” considered acquiring Ark.)

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People search is nowhere near done well yet, and I think this is an interesting market – though it does raise some privacy concerns when there are sites like where people post personal information about each that can’t be removed. With Google making all of this information widely available, being vigilant about seeing what people can find out you is critical to maintaining your online reputation. Ark can create a new type of search engine here and hopefully a lot of people will find it useful.

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