Pinterest said today that it has acquired Jelly, a bad 4-year-old search engine, for an undisclosed sum. Jelly, which was created by Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, tried to reimagine search as a social question-and-answer network. Instead of relying on Google for hard-to-answer questions like “what are some child-friendly places to go in Fresno this weekend,” Jelly would attempt to route your questions to people who might know. After several minutes, it would then give you an answer that typically did not improve meaningfully on Google search results. It was a disaster.
The Verge broke news of Jelly’s Q&A plans in 2013, when the company was still in stealth. It built on Fluther, a similar Q&A app that Stone had previously advised. Ben Finkel, who became Stone’s co-founder with Jelly, had created Fluther in 2007. After a full decade of trying to bring this idea to life, it has now been absorbed into Pinterest, which will almost certainly shut it down. “We’re still working out details, so there are unknowns,” Stone wrote, in a note that comes across as disingenuous given Pinterest’s own comments on the purchase. “Will Jelly remain separate, or integrated somehow?”
Here’s a prediction: it won’t remain separate, because no one was using it. (Pinterest notably did not say one word about the future of the app.) By my count, this is the third time Jelly has failed. The first was when Fluther was abandoned. The second was in 2014, when Stone and Finkel abandoned Jelly to make a meme app named Super. Last year they decided to “un-pivot” back to Jelly, and in my tests search results had not improved much. There are a number of searches for which Google is terrible — an increasing number, even! — but beating Google at its own game is a monumental challenge, and trying to crowdsource it with unpaid labor was a fool’s errand.
The thing is, Pinterest is a great search engine for many of the things Google is bad at. Ask Google to show you couches or dresses or bullet journals and your search results will have been SEO’d straight to hell: you’re getting ads disguised as answers. Pinterest, on the other hand, only includes items that have been put there by human beings, and the results are often much more satisfying. In many ways, search is the most compelling part of Pinterest as a business — it’s powerful and hard to replicate. Its new feature Lens, a kind of Shazam for products in the real world, is one of my favorite tech demos of the past year.
If you searched Jelly for couches or dresses, on the other hand, you would have waited a few minutes and then got some links via email. But Pinterest says the acquisition will “accelerate our efforts in building the world's first visual discovery engine.” How?
The deal seems to have been more of an “acqui-hire” for Pinterest — a way of buying some talent to work on a specific problem. Finkel is joining the “growth product team,” a spokeswoman said, and Stone — a Pinterest investor, incidentally — is becoming a “special adviser” to Evan Sharp, Pinterest’s co-founder and chief product officer. (He will actually be working out of the Pinterest office part time, I’m told.)
It’s unclear how putting Finkel on the growth product team is going to improve visual search. And I’d be shocked if Stone were still working out of the Pinterest office a year from now. In the meantime, Jelly appears headed toward death once again. Maybe this time it will stay that way.
Update, 4:24 p.m.: This post has been updated to include the fact that Stone is a Pinterest investor.