The first thing we usually think of when we hear the word "influencer" is Klout , followed by a bad +K joke. The idea of tacking a be-all, end-all number onto our social significance may seem trifling, but social scoring  is becoming an increasingly attractive method for businesses, marketers, and agencies to discover their best customers and brand evangelists. And following them are a crop of startups who are trying to help them wade through all that social data and, along the way, make a profit.
One service, Little Bird , is trying a novel approach: surfacing what it calls "trusted influencers and experts on any topic online." Formerly known as Plexus, Little Bird just launched today in private beta with $1 million in funding from investors including Mark Cuban and early Twitter lead engineer Blaine Cook.
Little Bird lets you run reports based on specific search terms and will spit back up to 3,000 organizations and people it thinks are relevant. So if you search for a term such as "incubators," Little Bird will suggest a few influencers it thinks you might want to know about--in a demo, I saw Dave McClure and Fred Wilson pop up on that list. It also throws in filters such as an Insider Score that determines which influencers are the most influential (try to keep up) within a particular expert group. For example, Techstars' Insider Score is 348, indicating the number of Little Bird-determined incubator specialists following Techstars on Twitter.
CEO Marshall Kirkpatrick tells Fast Company Little Bird, which he says is getting LinkedIn and Google+ integration in the coming weeks, is much more effective at surfacing influencers than simply doing a blind web crawl for "incubators," which he says can bring up a lot of false-positives and isn't necessarily backed by the endorsement of other specialists.
"It’s a '9 out of 10 dentists recommend' model," explains CEO Marshall Kirkpatrick. "Except we’re not looking at explicit recommendations. We’re looking at who these people have chosen to connect to."
Kirkpatrick, a former data journalist and founder of ReadWriteWeb who prides himself on having used data to beat TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington to news stories, says the comparisons Little Bird gets to Klout are unfair.
"This is not about absolute popularity like Klout is," he says. "We’re not looking for people for our customers to cajole into rebroadcasting corporate messages to large audiences, which I think is the best use case for Klout. We’re looking for people to learn from, and, frankly, we find better ones."
Another new service targeting the influencer search engine space is Traackr , which yesterday announced it had raised $1.4 million in funding. Traackr takes a three-pronged algorithmic approach to surfacing influencers by considering reach, resonance, and relevance to find influencers. Traackr doesn't necessarily focus just on social profiles, instead performing deep analysis on all of an individual's contributions across the web (including blog post comments) to figure out which topics they're influential about.
"With so much online content happening on Facebook and Twitter, the idea of a webpage doesn't make much sense anymore as a unit for the web," CEO Pierre-Loïc Assayag tells Fast Company. "More and more the authors of the content are the center point of what's being said."
Little Bird and Traackr are two examples of businesses trying to profit off social search in a post-Google world. But it's not just the upstarts who are targeting the social media marketing space. In the past year we've seen giants such as Google acquire Wildfire Interactive ; Salesforce pick up Buddy Media ; and Microsoft enter a multi-year partnership  with Klout to beef up Bing's social sell.
Kirkpatrick likens the increasing interest in social-web search to the early-web days of Yahoo and Google.
"Back in the day, Yahoo thought they could build an index of the whole web through manually created directories of websites," he says. "Then Google showed that the best way to do it was to use automation to link between webpages."
Now that we're increasingly in a world where more professionals, businesses, and niche interest groups are exploring the benefits of the social web, search has to evolve accordingly to fit our new, more social needs, he says.
"There are business professionals who take hours or days or weeks to find this stuff, and they're willing to pay for it," he says.
[Image: Flickr user James Cridland ]