Voyurl Makes Data Less Nerdy

Site gives Web surfers ability to track themselves

You’re being followed. Online, that is. The average Web surfer would probably not be surprised to learn his or her Internet activity is tracked by advertisers, publishers, and Google. Some would even accept that as the price of browsing the Internet. Others don't, thus the great privacy debate raging in Washington, in Silicon Valley smear campaigns, and, of course, online.

Now a startup still in private beta wants to turn the data parasites on their heads.

Voyurl started as a side project of Anomaly communications strategist Adam Leibsohn, who created a browser plug-in which records and analyzes precious marketing information about a user’s Web activity, spitting it back in the form of colorful charts. The twist, though, is that Voyurl says it will never, ever sell the data. The company’s raison d'etre is to “empower” its users with their own data. “We want people to love data,” Leibsohn said.

Voyurl is the latest in a series of personal data startups like Mint.com, which analyzes a user’s credit card spending; Fitbit, which analyzes exercise and eating habits; and LARK, which analyzes sleeping habits.

The idea behind Voyurl is that the “latent power” of one’s browsing history shouldn’t be capitalized on and sold ads against by everyone but you. Google, comScore, Quantcast, Compete, and their peers have access to browsing data. Some of it is collected by cookies, some via voluntary panels. Either way, they’re making money on it. Voyurl seeks to disrupt that practice.

“We want to get people to know their data well enough that they can actually leverage that power,” Leibsohn said. While refusing to discuss specifics, Leibsohn said Voyurl plans to help its users gain real tangible benefits from voluntarily sharing their data with interested parties (think Klout Rewards). But instead of trading on social currency, users will get to use their Web data. Notably, unless specified, Voyurl user data remains anonymous and private.

Data disruption might be the company’s big goal, but it also has a smaller one. Voyurl has thrown its hat into the recommendation engine ring, serving links to relevant stories based on a user’s browsing habits.

To that end, Voyurl’s initial iteration was full of customization bells and whistles aiming to better target its link recommendations. As in similar sites, there were tags, thumbs up and down buttons, preferences boxes, and social network layers like Facebook Connect. Version 2 is purposely free of all customization, Leibsohn said, because “actions speak louder than words.”

Besides, Web surfers are social media-ed out. Cutting out the picking and clicking eliminates friction. Users with the plug-in installed do nothing, and the Voyurl platform personalizes away, based on Web surfing. The content recommendations are pulled from users with similar Web behavior, serving a link provided the user hasn’t seen it yet. It’s not too obvious (no Facebook), and it’s safe for work. The engine isn’t earth-shatteringly complex, but effective in its simplicity.

Voyurl now has somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 users, Leibsohn said. The bootstrapped company, which has a handful of part-timers and one full-time employee, will come out of private beta mode in the next two months. Those anxious to give it a try can follow this link for a beta sign-up.