There are a two acquisitions of consumer-facing internet companies in the last few weeks that I think are worth noting. Both have gotten ample attention already, but for somewhat different reasons than I have in mind. I refer to Last.fm’s sale to CBS for $280M and eBay’s acquisition of StubleUpon for $75M.
What I find interesting about these two deals is that they mark the first exits for startups in the broad information/media discovery sector. The explosion of content on the web over the last decade plus has required the development of technology for consumers to find this content. Of course the primary modality has been search which has spawned today’s massive franchises like Google and Yahoo!, once meaningful companies that are no longer with us (Altavista, Infoseek), and plenty of newer platforms (Technorati, Blinkx, et al). Search is an “active” process of users seeking information based on fairly specific parameters, still typically keyword queries.
Discovery, on the other hand, involves the surfacing of information in a “semi-passive” sort of manner where users aren’t querying in a topically or even temporally specific way. Last.fm helps users discover music that is new (at least to them) and at least theoretically relevant and interesting to them, along with a variety of other services (Pandora, iLike, et al). StumbleUpon helps users discover previuosly unknown websites, just as Digg or Sphere do with news articles. Other media types have also seen development of discovery tools (e.g. movies – Flixster), and discovery exists at least in “recommendation” form in various e-commerce platforms (Amazon and Netflix are the two best). Discovery enables users to find new content they know might exist, but without specific knowledge of it or an active search process to uncover it.
So who cares? While both StumbleUpon and Last.fm are good outcomes for founders, employees, and investors the deals are dwarfed at least in dollar size by activity in other areas (think internet advertising infrastructure or online video). And one could argue that companies like Flickr or del.icio.us, both acquired by Yahoo!, had strong discovery components to them though IMO both are primarily collaborative sharing rather than discovery per se. Of course search is hardly going away and it will probably continue to reign supreme in the text web. But discovery can arguably be a more effective modality for media content that isn’t text-based (images, video, music, games, etc). But I do think we are in the early innings of the growth of discovery as a modality for finding content and information online… and I for one am interested to see where things go.