Apture Seeks to Keep Web Readers Glued On Sites Longer, While Still Enabling Them to Explore the Web

6/29/11Follow @wroush

The Web giveth and the Web taketh away. On the giveth side, the Web is a great medium for publishers because of its low distribution costs, and because of all the free traffic that results when search engines and other sites create links to a publisher’s pages. On the taketh side, the Web’s abundance and the very ease of following an outgoing link or starting a new search means that readers sometimes don’t hang around very long—they’re in and out as fast as you can say Tim Berners-Lee. So publishers are always searching for better ways to get readers to sit and rest a spell.

For more than three years, San Francisco-based Apture has been working on tools that help with this, essentially by grabbing parts of the outside Web and bringing them inside. At sites that use Apture, such as Scientific American, highlighting any phrase will generate a popup box with relevant material from Wikipedia, YouTube, Google Maps, Flickr, Twitter, and other sources. Publishers can also craft pre-built Apture links that activate popups with specific material vetted by authors or editors. The idea is to help a site’s visitors satisfy their urge to follow great links around the Web without actually leaving the original site. (You can give Apture a try right in this article—just highlight any word or phrase.)

Investors such as Clearstone Ventures, VMware CEO Paul Maritz, and former Boston Globe vice president Steve Taylor have found Apture’s idea compelling enough to pony up $4.6 million in seed and Series A financing, and in 2009 Inc. magazine featured Apture co-founders Tristan Harris, Can Sar, and Jesse Young in its “30 under 30″ list of the “coolest young entrepreneurs.”

But there are at least a couple of limitations in Apture’s system—and the startup is now moving to fix them. One problem, CEO Harris explained to me a few weeks ago, is that it takes authors a bit of extra work to create an Apture link—a particular barrier for writers who aren’t already in the habit of filling up their copy with outgoing hyperlinks. Another is that it’s hard for publishers to know in advance what topics readers will be curious about. A sports site might spend all its time creating links for soccer teams, for example, when readers are actually more interested in individual players.

Today Apture is unveiling a feature that uses a crowdsourcing approach to correct both problems at once. From now on, Apture will track the phrases that users highlight, and if enough people highlight the same phrase, that text will automatically be converted into a pre-built link—what the company calls a HotSpot. With the new feature, publishers won’t have to do any extra work to create Apture links, and they won’t have to try to anticipate which topics will be most popular. The amount of time readers spend on a site should go up, as visitors who might have surfed off to another site or a search engine are instead offered more opportunities to peruse related information inline.

“We are trying to leverage signals about what users care about to decide what are the right things to offer within a page,” says Harris. “It’s a really hard problem because it’s basically mind-reading. So we are trying to track readers who do declare what’s on their mind by highlighting, and turning their behavior into these social links.”

In a blog post today, Harris explains Apture’s HotSpots using an extended analogy about neural networks in the brain. Every existing link on the Web is like a synapse connecting two neurons, he writes, and the Web gets smarter as people make and follow links. But there are lots of “missing” synapses—cases where a reader wants to know more about something, but there isn’t an existing link that helps them make the connection. In those instances, a reader might highlight a phrase, copy it into Google, and never return to the original site. With HotSpots, Apture “tracks the ‘missing links’ by identifying topics which cause visitors to ‘leak’ out to Google,” Harris writes.

For the startup, the hope is that the HotSpots feature will make the service attractive to more publishers, who can choose either a free version of Apture supported by the sponsored Bing and Yahoo search results that show up in the popup boxes or a paid version without the sponsored search results. The HotSpots feature goes live today at “hundreds” of the publishers who are already using Apture. The company is also offering beta access to the first 300 publishers who sign up starting today.

Harris earned a BS in computer science from Stanford University and spent three years at Apple before returning to Stanford for master’s studies. He says many of the original ideas behind Apture came from his work with BJ Fogg, a pioneer in the area of behavior design who founded Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab. To get users to do something, says Harris, “One theory of behavior design is that you need a trigger, you need motivation, and you need ability.” And as it turns out, he says, ability is far more important than motivation. “If ability is really, really easy, people will click something even if they are not highly motivated. Apture is leveraging that path. If ability is easy, it turns a spark of curiosity into a full flame of exploration.”

Time will tell whether Apture’s HotSpots prove popular with readers and publishers. One limitation in the system is that it depends on signals from the small fraction of Web readers who ever bother to select and highlight something on the page they’re visiting—it’s between 8 and 10 percent, according to Harris. But to compensate, Apture can draw on data from its whole network of sites, which together boast almost a billion page views a month, according to Harris. “The fact that across our entire network a lot of readers all want to know more about Muhammad Ali tells us maybe we should create a link to Muhammad Ali on this page,” says Harris. “So we can be smart not just on a page level but also across the website and the network.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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