Shareaholic Becomes the Link-Sharing Tool of Choice—And Builds a Vast Database on Social Media Behavior

Blogging is about active sharing. I’ve known this on an intellectual level for years, but working for Xconomy has made the idea very real to me. My stories reach far more readers if I take a few extra minutes every day to share the items with my e-mail contacts and Twitter followers, and to submit links to places like Slashdot and Y Combinator’s Hacker News. And after all, if nobody is aware that you posted something, what was the point of writing it?

Of course, it’s not just my own stories and other Xconomy articles that I share. I find loads of cool stuff across the Web every day, and Twitter is a great vehicle for sharing the joy with people who share my tastes.

This week I started using a browser plugin called Shareaholic that makes all of this active sharing much easier, by providing a single button that connects me instantly to more than 60 sharing services including social bookmarking, blogging, publishing, and other tools. Shareaholic isn’t new—in fact, it’s the most widely distributed browser plugin for sharing, with over a million downloads so far. It’s been trendy among the digerati at least since February 2008, when its inventor, Jay Meattle, was one of three grand prize winners in a Mozilla-sponsored contest designed to highlight the coolest new Firefox extensions. But somewhat embarrassingly, I only learned about it recently, when Meattle gave a presentation at the July Web Innovators Group meeting in Cambridge, MA.

Bookmarking and sharing services supported by ShareaholicMeattle came by Xconomy’s palatial new offices recently to tell me more about Shareaholic, which has grown from a plugin into a full-fledged startup based in Cambridge. He showed me how easy it is to configure the free tool to submit whatever Web page you’re looking at to Digg, Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, Techmeme, Delicious, StumbleUpon, and about three dozen other social networking and bookmarking sites and news aggregators. You can also use it to share your discoveries with yourself, by sending them to online notebook services like Posterous or Evernote (my personal favorite) or your blog on LiveJournal, Blogger, or Tumblr.

And, of course, you can e-mail links to yourself or to others via Gmail, Hotmail, or your default e-mail client. In fact, Meattle says the whole idea for Shareaholic came from conversations with a colleague named David Cancel who, like Meattle, was tired of having to copy URLs from the browser address bar and paste them into e-mails when the pair was sharing Web materials with one another. Cancel is the co-founder and CTO of San Francisco- and Cambridge-based Lookery, a targeting service for online ads where Meattle was, until four months ago, the vice president of products. The pair also worked together on the founding team of Compete.com, a Boston-based Web traffic analysis firm sold last year to marketing giant TNS.

For Meattle, it was a simple matter to write some software that would automatically grab a link from the Firefox URL bar and dump it into a new outgoing e-mail message. And over time (meaning, working nights and weekends until a few months ago) Meattle has been able to make Shareaholic work on multiple browsers—Firefox, IE, Safari, Chrome, Flock, and even Songbird, Mozilla’s open-source answer to iTunes—and communicate with practically every Web 2.0-era sharing service that has a public API, or application programming interface.

But why go to all this trouble to provide a free tool that generates no direct revenue? To answer that, all you have to do is look at Meattle’s recent history as an entrepreneur. At bottom, both Compete.com and Lookery are about collecting and selling data that helps other companies understand and predict consumers’ behavior online. And as it turns out, every time a Shareaholic user activates the tool, Meattle collects a few bits of (anonymous) data about what Web content people think is worth sharing, where it came from, and where it was shared to. At a million sharing actions per month, that data is piling up quickly—and it’s just begging to be monetized.

“At Compete, it took us millions of dollars to get to this point, and here we’ve already built a huge data set” on a bootstrapped budget, Meattle says. (Shareaholic is just raising its first round of angel funding now.) “It was a happy accident,” he says. “We didn’t do this to get the data.” But now that the company has it, it could do any number of things with it.

Meattle predicts, for example, that the new field of “social media optimization”—services that help publishers and advertisers make the best use of social media tools like Twitter and Facebook—has the potential to become just as big and important as search engine optimization and search engine marketing. (In that sense, Shareaholic joins a growing cluster of firms in the Boston area that specialize in new forms of online marketing, including Hubspot and Crimson Hexagon.) Getting an inside look at Shareaholic’s data about what content is being shared most often, on what platforms, would be any social media marketer’s dream.

Up to now, Meattle says he has focused on making Shareaholic powerful yet easy to use. The next six months, he says, will be spent experimenting with various business models. “It could be any of five different things,” he says. “But it comes back to the philosophy that if you build a good product, and keep your users number one, good things are going to happen.”

Shareaholic does have some competition. There’s ShareThis, social bookmarking tool used by many online publications, including Xconomy. (See the little green “Share” icon at the bottom of this story). And as Greg wrote a couple of weeks ago, a Bellevue, WA, startup called Sharein.com is entering the same territory. But as far as I can tell, Shareaholic offers connections to far more sharing services than any of the competing tools.

If it has a drawback, it’s that it’s a bit impersonal, and only works as well as the services that it connects you to. If you want to tweet about something using the tool, for example, it connects you to TwitThat, which automatically formats the headline of the article you’re reading and shortens the URL, but doesn’t let you add commentary. When I tweet, I like to give my followers a bit of insight beyond what’s in a headline, so for important stuff I’ll probably keep tweeting manually using Tweetdeck.

But Shareaholic is so convenient that I’ve already gotten rid of the row of separate browser bookmarklets that I used to use to connect to Tumblr, Evernote, and the like. In fact, it’s so much fun using the tool that I now have to remind myself, once in a while, to stop spreading the news and go write something worth sharing.

I’m on vacation next week—World Wide Wade will return on August 14. For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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