StumbleUpon’s new Explore Box lets you stumble with purpose

Since its inception, StumbleUpon has worked pretty much as the name advertised: It allows you to stumble upon cool things on the web, rather than through explicit web searches. But a new beta feature is set to expand StumbleUpon’s offering in a significant way, bringing the app more search engine-like specificity.

The new feature, called the Explore Box, allows StumbleUpon users to surf through streams of content related to specific keywords or phrases they type in. By typing in keywords such as “New York City” or “Katy Perry,” you can now use StumbleUpon to peruse the web through a more narrowly directed content stream. Previously, you could only explore the web using StumbleUpon within certain sets of around 500 topics. With the explore box, you now have the option of viewing StumbleUpon content within hundreds of thousands of much more granular interests.

The Explore Box feature is launching on StumbleUpon’s web app Wednesday and should be deployed on its mobile apps in the near future. Here’s what it looks like to use (click image to expand):

In a recent interview, StumbleUpon CEO Garrett Camp told me that the reasons behind launching the Explore Box now are two-fold. First, customers have long been asking for a way to use StumbleUpon to find content on more specific things, such as their favorite celebrities or sports teams. And secondly, the service had to grow large enough for the deployment to make sense. Camp said:

“We’ve had a prototype of this for a while, but earlier on we felt like we weren’t getting enough results. We couldn’t really do it at the beginning because we needed a bigger index. In the earlier days, if you had typed in a specific term, you may have gotten just five results. Now, we have millions of pages of content, and it will just get better over time.”

Camp stressed that the company is certainly not abandoning its core goal of bringing serendipity to web surfing. “With the explore box, it still feels like stumbling upon things. But it feels like more focused stumbling,” he said. He was quick to emphasize that the explore box is not meant to be a search feature. “I think the term explore is better; it connotes that feeling of active seeking, but you still don’t know exactly what you’re going to get.”

Additionally, Camp told me StumbleUpon has started to bring in certain RSS feeds that will help bolster the amount of long-tail content it offers through the explore box as well as its flagship product. Previously, StumbleUpon only included pages that had been explicitly added by users.

In all, the explore box is just the latest example of how well StumbleUpon has been able to iterate very useful new features since it spun out from eBay (s ebay) two years ago. As Camp told me in an interview last month, “Now that we’re independent again, you can have an idea here and make it happen very quickly.”

Here is a video of the Explore Box at work: