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StumbleUpon gets its act together

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Serendipitous discovery is one of the great joys of the web. Sure, standard search provides its share of satisfying conquest, but digital serendipity truly came of age back in December 2001 with the launch of StumbleUpon, a browser plugin that applied a special algorithm to send users to potentially unexpected and interesting sites every time they clicked the “Stumble” button.

The real genius of StumbleUpon resides in the users’ ability to mark up interest categories and then thumb up or down the sites they like or dislike, thus refining their future Stumble “recommendations” and those of the broader Stumble community. The service is known for its uncanny ability to throw forward fascinating sites that aren’t on the most popular pages of Digg and delicious.

In 2007, eBay purchased StumbleUpon for US$75 million. In recent weeks, speculation has swirled that eBay is preparing to sell the service, having never integrated it into its core e-commerce business. StumbleUpon’s web traffic has stagnated, but, as StumbleUpon CEO Garrett Camp recently pointed out, these web stats are misleading because users don’t need to visit the site to “stumble”. And registrations have continued to grow unabated.

StumbleUpon web toolbar

StumbleUpon took a big leap forward this week, launching a web service that doesn’t require users to install the browser toolbar – hitherto one of the main obstacles to broader uptake. The new service is initially only available to new users (ie those who don’t already have the browser plugin), but it is expected to be rolled out to everyone in the near future.

StumbleUpon has also introduced a new partner program, with The Huffington Post, HowStuffWorks, Rolling Stone and National Geographic already signed up. Participating sites will display a StumbleUpon widget beside their articles, which will allow readers to “Stumble” through pages within that site.

StumbleUpon is one of the most innovative and addictive services on the web. And now, after many years of ‘cult favourite’ status, it looks like it has finally settled on a web strategy that will take it mainstream.

If you’ve never “stumbled” online before, try out the new web offering. You’ll be hooked. (Warning: Just don’t expect to get much work done this afternoon. Stumbling makes YouTube look like homework in comparison.)

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