Pandora has long maintained its place as a top source for personalized music. Users simply type in their favorite artists or songs, and the site generates a playlist of songs tailored to their musical tastes. Now imagine this idea of personalized recommendations applied to your online news content.
Dan Olsen M.B.A. ’98, CEO of YourVersion and Stanford Graduate School of Business alumnus, has founded a website that does exactly this. A user, in lieu of using a search engine, a bookmark or an RSS feed, may simply go to one website and all the news he or she cares about will appear.
Olsen describes YourVersion as the Pandora of real-time Web content. What he has termed a “discovery engine” pulls together the most recent and relative online sources related to the user’s interests without any searching, including news, blogs, tweets and videos.
“You sit back and our product just pushes it back to you,” Olsen said.
How Does It Work?
Users type their interests into the YourVersion “discovery engine,” which then produces articles that are both recent and relevant to their topics. The site gives the user control via a “recency”-relevancy slider in the top left corner of the page. Depending on the user’s intent, he or she can shift a dial more toward more recent or more relevant content.
The site also encourages sharing content and provides tools to simplify the process. Users can share links via Facebook, Twitter or e-mail. YourVersion provides Web browser tools for Chrome, Safari and Firefox. The site automatically shortens URLs to 140 characters, which is the character limitation on Twitter.
“I love the link-shortening feature of the YourVersion toolbar for Firefox, and I love that it tracks your preferences over time and e-mails you interesting stories,” said Stephanie Werner ’11, a former marketing intern at YourVersion, in an e-mail to The Daily.
Using these browser tools, users can share whatever content from any website, as long as they’re logged in to YourVersion. To share content via Facebook takes about five seconds.
As Werner pointed out, the site also sends out an optional weekly e-mail tailored to the user’s interests. It provides the top 10 stories of the week, as well as a free iPod and iPad app so users can access YourVersion anywhere they go.
Olsen came up with the idea for the site after realizing that several websites gain so much personal data about their users, yet never use any of it. He believes that even though OpenTable — a restaurant reservation booking site — provides a great service to its customers, it misses the opportunity to provide personalized recommendations based on users’ history. To Olsen, Amazon does a great job at this, with its “More Items to Consider” and “New For You” suggestions, among others.
Olsen decided to capitalize on the idea of information gathering to help people access the news they care about. He thought, “Why don’t we help people solve the information overload problem?”
The Official Google Blog noted that there are “a trillion unique URLs, and the number of individual web pages out there is growing by several billion pages per day.”
Olsen said that it becomes challenging for people to sort through the material relevant to their interests.
“The way to solve this information overload challenge for users is to serve what is highly relative to them,” Olsen proposed. “The tool needs to get smart about you.”
YourVersion also harnesses collective intelligence. In other words, it aggregates all of the data from users, while adding human intelligence to make the content more personalized. In particular, YourVersion gathers a large amount of attention data — the interaction between the user and the site.
The YourVersion staff has conducted 80 one-on-one usability tests. In each test, a staff member watches the respondent interact with the site and tracks potential difficulties.
A number of Stanford students have interned with the start-up to help ensure a positive customer experience.
“I had a great time working at YourVersion,” said Orr Keshet, a computer science coterminal student. “The working environment is fun and you are always working on something interesting. There is never a dull moment.”
Since its launch in 2009 at the TechCrunch50 Conference, YourVersion has won the People’s Choice Awards at multiple start-up events: TechCrunch50, SF New Tech, the Play Berkeley Digital Media Conference, SNAP Summit’s FailCon and SF Beta.
Stanford students are starting to catch the vision.
“I like YourVersion because it enables me to easily follow my key interests,” said Cassandra Espinoza ‘ll. “It could be very useful to other students.”