Yesterday brought the news that Google has officially purchased Aardvark, a small San-Francisco-based social search startup that happens to have been created by former Google employees. The timing, coming just two days after Google unveiled Buzz, can't be coincidental—but what can Aardvark do for Google? An awful lot, as it turns out.
Aardvark is a question-and-answer service more than a search engine. You ask a question via email or instant message, and it looks through your list of friends as well as your friends' friends before sending your question to those who would be able to answer it best. So if you ask "What's the best coffeeshop in San Francisco's Mission District?" it'll only send the question to those who live or have lived in San Francisco. Your answers won't be a list of external links, like a typical search engine, but a genuine human reply, just like in those horrible, horrible days before the Internet when people had to (shudder) relate to one another. And if you're doubting the chance of actually receiving a response, you'll be surprised: It's remarkably efficient, returning an answer 90% of the time, and 60% of the time within 10 minutes. Even better, users rank about 70% of answers as "good," and only 15% as "bad."
So why does Google want Aardvark? Could be the valuable search data Aardvark's collected—who's searching for what, what kind of answers are most satisfying for the user, that kind of thing—as well as the personnel involved in its creation. Also, remember, Google owned Foursquare's predecessor, Dodgeball, but allowed it to go fallow, only to have Foursquare explode in popularity a few years later. Google can't let that happen again with a similar service, especially now, with the launch of Buzz.
Let's say Google decides to use Aardvark. The possibilities are pretty striking, especially in the context of Google Buzz. Aardvark integrated with Buzz would take Google's fledgling social networking platform to a level neither Facebook nor guidebooks like Yelp can match. Facebook's private, friend-based community is its strength, a strength shared by Aardvark, yet Aardvark's search is, well, incredibly useful—that's something Facebook can't boast. Facebook is great for connecting with people, but it's just not designed with this kind of answer-based search in mind. Aardvark would be a notably Googley way to differentiate Buzz from the more established social networks: It's all about answers.
Aardvark would even allow Buzz to compete more effectively with Yelp—while Yelp might be the established crowd-sourced pool of answers to a lot of the questions Aardvark users ask, users might well be happier with the personal responses Aardvark can provide. Do you want to hear what some stranger you may have nothing in common with thinks about local cafes, or do you want to hear from your friends and friends of friends, who probably have similar taste in bohemian hangouts? Plus, the inherently helpful nature of Aardvark is a boon to social networking; it feels great to be asked a question to which you know the answer.
Even apart from Buzz, Aardvark would add an interesting social twist to plain old Google search. Imagine an additional button next to Web search, image search and video search: Friend search. Instead of asking Google's algorithms, you could ask living, breathing people. How cool is that?
Google hasn't said what they intend to do with Aardvark. Even the confirmation of the deal is as barebones as it gets: Max Ventilla, Aardvark's CEO, simply wrote "We can now confirm that Google has signed a deal to acquire us but have no further comment." But Aardvark has a lot to offer Google, and stripping the company for parts would be a mistake. But if they take advantage, Buzz is going to get a lot more exciting.