PandaWhale’s Slow And Steady March To Relevance

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Editor’s Note: Semil Shah is a contributor to TechCrunch. You can follow him on Twitter at @semil.

There is an interesting shift occurring in consumer websites and apps where users perform microwork that reshapes experiences. Classic examples of this are how Pinterest users are grabbing images from the web, personally reorganizing them, and, in the process, building a new image search engine, much like Google Images. And some would argue even better and more relevant. Or consider Instapaper and Pocket users who grab content to read later, stripped free of bloated ads and other unnecessary information. There are more and more services fitting into this trend, which I’ve called a “web of extraction,” and one emergent property that’s doing this in a novel way is one you may not have heard of: PandaWhale.

Go to PandaWhale and you won’t be visually impressed. The site isn’t winning design Webby’s any time soon. Users who come to PandaWhale create “stashes” of images and/or links to share publicly with others, and each stash represents an entirely open web page entirely crawlable by search engines. On each page, like a Quora thread, Tumblr post, etc., users can log in via various sites to PandaWhale and do their own patched-together version of a RapGenius annotation or commentary on the stashed item. The product tends to appeal to web users who want to save and organize links, as well as allow others to comment and co-create with them.

Based on that description, PandaWhale doesn’t sound too different from many other sites that do these sorts of things, but lurking under the hood is a wily strategy that is being rewarded by one of the biggest dogs on the street: Google.

The name PandaWhale partly derives from the theory that there are whales and pandas on the web, where a few whales who have big ideas and big audiences create and organize content, and where many pandas sit peacefully and consume that content, much like a panda would graze on bamboo. In startup-speak, the pandas are the unique visitors who somehow end up on a site like PandaWhale, and the whales are the rabid collectors who stash content and interact with others through a variety of online personas, some real and some through pseudonyms. While it’s important to have many whales stashing, it’s really about the quality of each new page, as well as how much each whale creates.

The juice behind PandaWhale’s recent growth is that this small group of whales subtly conducts important work for Google by bringing content (including images) from regions of the web where Google’s crawlers cannot easily explore. These whales stash images from Bing or GIFs from Tumblr and other types of media appended with social data that Google can’t quite rank, and then, as each stash is an open web page, it becomes visible to the search giant. In the same way Pinterest toiled for years before their growth spurt of 2011, PandaWhale could be on a similar path. Who knows?

There are many places to share and communicate around images and links, such as Reddit, and many of those sites have dense networks around them. Perhaps that’s why PandaWhale isn’t over-designed visually, but carefully designed and architected in such a way such that it’s searchable, organized by topic, and encourages new images and links in every stash. So far, Google’s algorithms like it.

Finally, while the architecture and user behavior may be the juice, PandaWhale’s secret weapon is that it was built as the digital reflection of a real, offline community of startup geeks and technology veterans who meet in-person and help each other out without, in my opinion, want of fame or fortune. That’s how I found out about the site when it popped up, why it may sustain the ephemerality of today’s launches and mindless growth-hacking tactics, and why I’ve been using it to essentially find random facts and opinions on technology and get the pulse of what the whales think. For what I do, I can’t look around the same places everyone else does for information — this is one of my secret places to test theories and form ideas from others. I don’t know what will happen to PandaWhale in the sense that it doesn’t look like a business (yet), and it doesn’t do any marketing or PR. Nor does it have crazy, insane-in-the-membrane email settings (I love the daily digest email), and the site is all fugly, to be honest, but perhaps that’s its charm.

Well, let’s see what happens. People all over Twitter and in the tech world often bemoan finding new, great, uncontaminated sources of information. VC firms are now directly hiring journalists and investing in content. Years ago, Marc Andreessen penned a great answer on Quora about what he would like to see in tech journalism, with a focus on discovering people and companies that “don’t have heat on them.” Traditional tech media for early-stage startups is saturated, but that’s not to say they’re covering everything and moving in a good direction. We’re in the middle of a media shift — a shift where powerful entities are taking on more editorial control, but also where individuals in networks are creating new types of information and surfacing things even the best editorial couldn’t. PandaWhale may be part of that shift. Or, at least, it certainly has been for me.