RealTime IT News

Love on The Grid

SocialGrid, a free service that launched Monday, is capitalizing on two of the industry's hottest trends: search engines and online social networking.

The idea is simple. Registered members turn their own personal or business Web pages into free personals ads.

Members that sign up with the Orange County, Calif.-based firm get a string of HTML to put on their personal or business Web pages. The SocialGrid Search System then translates information that members enter into their SocialGrid profiles. Then Google and other search engines index not only the page but also the profile.

"It's a Google for people," said SocialGrid founder Chau Vuong. While most social networking sites, such as Friendster and Tickle.com let members search for each other within the site itself, SocialGrid is an open social network that is not confined to any degree or any site, Vuong said.

There are two ways for members to find each other: via Google search or by using a peer-to-peer search application that works in conjunction with Google. Members don't have to learn the various tags, such as "ag33" for someone who's 33-years-old, or "r01" for Catholic. When they fill out the registration form and profile on the SocialGrid site, the form automatically generates the appropriate tags. The tags can be seen when the page's source code is viewed, but within the browser they look like small barcodes, which can be placed unobtrusively on the member's page.

Vuong said another important feature is that members can search ranges, for example, asking for men between 24- and 30-years-old. The P2P search tool expands Google's capabilities, letting members search for ranges of criteria and an increased number of criteria, for example, the elusive SF32, employed, likes tennis and walks on the beach.

Users perform a Google search by going to SocialGrid.com and using pull-down menus. The back-end technology transforms the menu items, and then queries Google's servers. The results are returned on Google's search site.

The P2P application, SocialGrid Search Engine, is a downloadable application that lets users search in a way similar to file-sharing applications; SocialGrid says it is spyware-free.

The service is based on tagging technology and doesn't require database access. Members can put their barcodes on their own sites, or build a simple personal page on SocialGrid.com.

Vuong said that unlike social networks like Friendster, Orkut and Tickle, SocialGrid doesn't limit members to searching within three degrees of separation.

"Also, their search is limited to a few key words and can't search for ranges like age or height," he said.

He said keeping the service free would result in a larger membership base, which increases the chance of someone finding the right match at the local level.

Social networking is a phenomenon, not a business, said Jupiter Research analyst Nate Elliott, and activity on the sites has been steadily declining.

"They don't want to use these things for pay services," he said. "They want to use them for the same things they can do for free anywhere else, like browse for job opportunities or chat with friends." Jupiter Research is owned by the same parent company as this site.

Unlike the VC-funded social networks, SocialGrid has a super-simple business model: Google AdSense. Vuong's theory is that if someone advertising for a mate says he enjoys hiking, Google might serve ads from sporting goods retailers on the page.

"I'm providing Google content for their ads," he said. "I'm helping Google, and they're helping me."

With the search wars in overdrive, Vuong thinks that Google should continue to expand. "Sooner or later, Google is going to come out with their own HotJobs and GeoCities," he said. "Orkut is like Google's answer to Yahoo Groups. SocialGrid is basically a Google's version of Yahoo's GeoCities and HotJobs."

Elliott said that social networks could be of some use to portals and other large sites that could track what people did and read about, then use it to better target advertising elsewhere on the site.

Google is notoriously un-amused by anyone taking its name in vain; it has sent cease-and-desist letters to Booble, a directory of X-rated Web sites. But Vuong said that he knows Google is aware of SocialGrid, because several Google employees have signed up.

Google is an almost irresistible target for unauthorized enhancements, said Rael Dornfest, co-author of Google Hacks and series editor for O'Reilly's Hack series. He said, "Google is like the Jungian collective unconscious of the Internet."

With hierarchical directories such as Yahoo! , publishers add information to the index, and search results reflect what publishers told it, Dornfest said. "Google is fed not so much by key words as by conversations on the Web. It reflects back to us what we find more important. Not just conversations, themselves but how they interweave with each other are recorded."

Dornfest said lots of people already use Google for social networking, although not so explicitly as SocialGrid allows. The API lets users see what pages are linked to the pages they've found, and find unsuspected connections.

"It provides some interesting paths forward rather than just back to what you were looking for," Dornfest said.

And if that path leads to an attractive member of the opposite sex, Vuong said so much the better for SocialGrid.