Aardvark, the secretive, invite-only social search service founded by ex-Googlers that we first mentioned late last year, is preparing to become a little less secretive (the company has changed its name from Mechanical Zoo to Aardvark). They’ll start giving users virtually unlimited invitations starting next week – until now invites have been limited to one or so per month per user.
Aardvark is a way to get quick, quality answers to questions from your extended social network. You can ask questions via an instant message buddy or email. The questions are then farmed out to your contacts (and their contacts) based on what they say they have knowledge of. If you ask taste related questions about music, books, movies, restaurants, etc., they’ll ask people who tend to show similar tastes as you in their profile.
I’ve used it for feedback on restaurant recommendations in Paris, vacation rentals in Sonoma and wine bars in San Francisco.
The service works best when you already have friends using it, which is why the company is focused on user invitations rather than just opening it up to the public. There is a wait list on the home page, and the company says they’ll start letting those people in, too. But they’ve found during beta testing that users who have a group of friends to ask and answer questions to have a better experience and are more likely to stick. One way for users to grab a quick friend list is to sign in via Facebook Connect, which imports all your Facebook friends who are already using it, and prompts you to invite those that aren’t.
The company is also experimenting with a very promising sub-product that groups people under topics of interest. We could theoretically create a TechCrunch group, for example, that lets users ask questions about startups, venture funding and entrepreneurship to each other. All those questions and answers are populating a knowledge base in the background (think Yahoo Answers but with real content), and eventually Aardvark may leverage all that data. More on this in the coming months, says Aardvark co-founder Max Ventilla.