Six weeks ago, Jace Cooke and Alex Chung, two of the hackers in residence at New York innovation lab Betaworks, shared a fun little product they had cobbled together with about twenty friends. It was called Giphy, and it lets users search a database of around thousands of GIFs, the animated loops that have become the lingua franca of internet culture. Word spread like wildfire and by the end of that week, with no marketing at all, over 50,000 people had taken Giphy for a spin, melting down the not-yet-a-startup's one server on several occasions.
"We could tell it struck a nerve, so we swarmed it," said Paul Murphy, the head of product at Betaworks, which is home to startups such Chartbeat, Bitly and the newly refreshed Digg. "That's one of the incredible things about Betaworks, you can just kind of print up a team on demand." The team grew to half a dozen developers, designers and community managers. In the weeks since the launch, over half a million users have searched for millions of GIFs.
At first, Giphy was just pulling its images from a few GIF goldmines like Tumblr and KnowYourMeme, but the index has been doubling in size every week since launch. The team were preparing a big launch to officially announce the connection to Betaworks and the their ambition to build the best GIF search and community platform. Then, BOOM, Google jumped into the game.
Yesterday afternoon, in a small, rather unceremonious post on Google+, the search giant announced that it was adding a drop-down option to the search tools menu on all its image searches. Users would now be able to perform an image search for an exploding robot, then filter those results so that only the animated images appear. The internet went wild with applause.
A great thing about Betaworks: you can print a team on demand
The team at Giphy has decided not to pack up shop. If anything, Google's move into GIF search just weeks after their arrival was sign that they were onto something truly massive, and perhaps tech titans were taking notice. The strategy going forward is to make Giphy about a lot more than search. "We obviously can't compete with Google in terms of crawling the entire web multiple times a day or layering on advanced image recognition algorithms," said Cooke. "But we think GIFs are more than just data points. They are a medium for expression. So we're going to build Giphy into the best place to search, curate, create, remix, and share GIFs."
Right now, Giphy hasn't launched tools to let users create and remix GIFs. But the basic experience is still very satisfying. On its homepage, Giphy displays a simple search bar at the top, then a collection of popular, trending, and handpicked hashtags organized around trending GIFs. Users can search for anything they want, or click through the collections of classics like #dealwithit, #foreveralone, #ryangosling, #kateupton, and of course, #cats. "We actually discovered there was an interesting real time element," said Cooke. "It's really useful when you are looking for the best GIF to capture a moment like Marco Rubio's dry mouth, Jessica Lawrence stumble at the Oscars, or the meteor exploding over Russia."
While Giphy is great at capturing and presenting trending topics, at this point Google's search results are far superior. Giphy can find you more than a thousand GIFs of Jennifer Lawrence, for instance, but returns zero results for a more refined search like for "Jennifer Lawrence trips Oscars."
"The initial goal in building giphy was to make a fun discovery tool." says Cooke. "Over the next week, we're turning on and tweaking a major search improvement, allowing you to search across multiple keywords and get stronger related results like you would with traditional search."
When you do get search results, Giphy has one major advantage over Google. You can mouse over a GIF in the search results and it will autoplay, allowing you to easily browse through a bunch of images without having to click through to each one. When you do click through to a GIF, the service gives you three options for your embed code tiled, normal, and fullscreen. Users can also share search results out to Facebook and Twitter. "It creates this viral loop," says Cooke. "Find a GIF, share a GIF, click a link, find a GIF, share a GIF..."