As a personalized news page, Spotback learns from your clicks and ratings to automatically prioritize news sources and items over time. It competes primarily with Findory on personalization and a long list of Ajax start pages for news.
The first feature in the upgrade is the new landing page, which asks what your interests described in single words and gives snide responses to each entry. Those tags then make up the basis for your basic news. Spotback is all about news search, something the other competitors emphasize far less. Mike Arrington thinks this mandatory screen asking you about your interests is deeply annoying, but I think he’s wrong. It’s a perfectly logical way to populate a news page, though it might be nice to have the option to skip it for people like Mike!
The second new feature is keyword alerts. New keyword search results can be delivered by email or RSS at a frequency of your choice. The alerts function is awkward right now but sounds like a good idea if the company can make it as usable as the rest of the site.
Search results can be added directly to your startpage, and this is important. When you enter search terms you’re able to narrow your query through two layers of categories – great for reducing junk results.
Finally, in addition to the standard drag and drop layout of modules, you’re also able to configure multiple viewing profiles. A single click can switch between them. So I might have one group of headlines I want to see at the top of my page first thing in the morning, but another configuration for the weekends – business and pleasure. That’s a very nice feature.
In as much as it competes with startpages, Spotback is in an incredibly crowded space online. The two leaders are probably Paris and London based Netvibes (who recieved $15 million more in venture funding two weeks ago) and Germany’s Pageflakes, another venture backed startpage company. There are quite a few others as well.
None the less, Spotback is particularly smart, functional and appealing vs the startpages, and that’s what I’d use it for if anything. Most of the other services are competing on diversity of modules, partnerships and actions you can perform from their site. Offering search, switchable layouts and learned prioritization are all very smart. Whether Spotback can make the transition from being cool to building the kinds of user numbers that some of their competitors have remains to be seen (Netvibes reported having 4 million users after 9 months online), but startpages are widely expected to be a big growth area in consumer facing web services so there may be no reason that a new leader couldn’t emerge. If RSS is too complicated for mass adoption in most of its incarnations, startpages may be what changes that. RSS is great, but RSS with search is much better.
TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington is an advisor to Spotback.