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How Guided Search Is Changing Pinterest's Business

Guided Search moved Pinterest beyond its "social scrapbooking" roots.

Kurt Wagner / Recode

Last week, Pinterest* celebrated the one-year anniversary of Guided Search, a feature that helped move the site beyond its “social scrapbooking” roots.

The company says that the search tool increased user queries by 30 percent. It’s become particularly popular among men, who use it to surface content that’s harder to find on the traditionally female site.

Essentially, Guided Search prompts users with words that other people often search. For example, if you type in ‘recipes’ it may suggest followup words like ‘healthy’ or ‘quinoa.’ After you choose a few of those guided words, the site serves up a cascading page of pictures — or “pins” in Pinterest-ese — that match what you’re looking for. The imagery offers a search experience that’s very different from Google — it’s about visual perusal instead of hunting down specific information.

Guided Search wasn’t the result of a strategic, top-down corporate strategy to transform Pinterest into a search company. Instead, it was born during a Red Bull-fueled hackathon among three engineers. One of them, Naveen Gavini, was as surprised as anyone that the tool has since become an integral part of the service.

Re/code recently talked with Gavini about the process of building Guided Search, what role it may play in the company’s future and the relative who inspired him to build the product. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Re/code: Was search a priority for Pinterest before you built this product?

Naveen Gavini: (Pinterest founders) Ben (Silbermann) and Evan (Sharp) had a vision for a bunch of different projects we should invest in. Search wasn’t really on that list. We knew we needed to do work on that product but we didn’t know how.

How did Guided Search come about then?

Three engineers got together and said, “We should try to take a shot at tackling this.”

We just got together and started kicking ideas around. We thought, “If we were to build search from the ground up what would we do differently?’” Thinking about it from a mobile perspective rather than search as we know it today.

In no way, shape or form did we intend for it to be what it was. We didn’t know if it would be something that would be successful.

How did you decide what should be different?

I thought about my mom. [She] is really technology illiterate. She calls me every week, “Hey, the icon disappeared from my computer what should I do?” She uses Pinterest for recipes, but she doesn’t know how to construct a (search) query.

You type in recipes and you go in to Google and nothing comes up and you realize you have to put in a descriptive word like “healthy.” A lot of people don’t know how.

So we thought, “Let’s do something simple and lead them on a serendipitous discovery journey.” On mobile the keyboard is the second thought, you should be able to navigate without typing.

What happened after you demoed the new tool for your managers?

That week all three of us were just so giddy. That magical feeling when someone else uses it and you see their eyes light up. The interesting thing about this project and the thing I’m most proud of is that before this project happened Pinterest’s identity was this bookmarking site. People called us a scrapbooking site.

(Search) wasn’t a company priority but building that prototype demonstrated that we had the ability to do something special in search. This wasn’t the intention of the project.

Did comparisons to Google search surprise you?

I think in many ways we’re not trying to compete with (Google). We’re trying to do something fundamentally different. If I want to find a specific piece of information I’ll go to Google.

But (it’s hard) if I don’t know what I’m looking for. I recently furnished my apartment and I went to Pinterest and typed in couches. It really helped me discover the right couch for my living room. That’s very difficult on Google and other search engines.

Just because you don’t think you’re competing with Google doesn’t mean Google agrees. Have you heard from anyone there?

After Guided Search we got on the radar of a lot of companies that (previously) were like, “They’re just a scrapbooking company.” Parts of our engineering team heard from a lot of companies like that from big to small. It led us to acquiring (ad targeting startup) Kosei.

So Google tried to recruit Pinterest engineers who were working on search?

A lot of our engineers are already from Yahoo and Google. I used to work at Yahoo before — I worked on mobile search there.

Ok. Not totally an answer but I’ll let it go. Is Pinterest becoming a search company?

I don’t see us as a search company. We’re discovery, which no one else is really doing. People find it hard to describe us which is why we get bucketed with social networking.

* Pinterest executive Joanne Bradford is an independent board member of Re/code’s parent company Revere Digital, but has no involvement in our editorial process.

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