Recommendation engine StumbleUpon has been facing some tough times lately: earlier this month we reported that eBay was looking to sell the startup less than 18 months after acquiring it (the company refuses to comment). And its traffic has been showing signs of stagnation (though the number of registered users to steadily rise). But tonight, the site is launching a new feature that may very well turn things around: a long awaited install-free web toolbar.
Update: CEO Garrett Camp says that usage of the service isn’t stagnating – the unique views have leveled off because users tend to Stumble without returning to the site’s homepage, so their hits aren’t recorded.
StumbleUpon has long been hindered by the fact that it requires a browser plugin that users have to download and install. Such plugins create a large barrier to entry, as they are time consuming and tend to be associated with malware. These problems are magnified by the fact that StumbleUpon’s purpose isn’t immediately obvious – many users have to actually try it out before they understand what it does (for the uninitiated, it uses an algorithm based on your preferences and other users to direct you to websites that you’ll find interesting).
To coincide with tonight’s announcement, StumbleUpon is introducing a partner program for sites that will take advantage of the web toolbar. At launch, The Huffington Post and HowStuffWorks will include widgets alongside their articles that will allow users to launch a StumbleUpon browser toolbar that is restricted to their sites (a toolbar launched at Huffington Post would only stumble across Huffington Post articles). The program will likely be a big success, as it allows partner sites to increase their page views by introducing users to new content, while helping StumbleUpon reach a broader audience.
StumbleUpon will still have some obstacles to overcome – the purpose of the web toolbar won’t be immediately obvious to new users, especially those who reach it from partner sites like The Huffington Post. But the burden of the browser plugin has finally been lifted, and I wouldn’t be surprised if these additions prompt impressive growth numbers in the coming months.