Is Volunia Italy’s answer to Google — or just hot air?

You can forgive Massimo Marchiori for wanting his moment in the sun. After all, it’s fifteen years since the Italian academic created Hyper Search, a system for ranking web pages that proved a great inspiration for Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s early attempts in online search.
But while the Google (s GOOG) founders went on to become dotcom billionaires at the head of one of the Internet’s most powerful companies, Marchiori turned down the offer of a job with them and returned to Italy to work on his own projects.
And today, finally, he unveiled what it is he’s been tinkering away on all this time: a social search engine called Volunia that he claims represents the “third generation of search.”
And what is it? Well, that’s hard to tell.
Not only is the service not yet open to the public — although Volunia promises a hundred thousand users will be let in today — but the hour-long press conference to launch the site was held entirely in Italian, struggled with technical problems and had very little in the way of actual demos to show us what the service really did.
The best visuals were a handful of ropey screenshots that suggested little about what was on offer. Most reports seem to repeat the rhetoric without offering any significant insight into how the site works.
So given the lack of hard information, here’s what we have so far:
Volunia is a search engine that indexes and maps out the web and then ranks it through a mixture of algorithms and the opinions of visitors. Marchiori alluded to the fact that it was intended to be like GPS for the web — but said it does not use semantic technology.
At the same time, Volunia provides a place for social interaction in a sidebar that lets users talk to each other and to the owners of the websites they are visiting; a service that seems to be half chatroom, half SideWiki, the universal commenting engine introduced — and then killed — by Google.
And that, for all of the words, seems to be the heart of it.
It’s a search engine that lets people talk to each other while they surf around the web. Marchiori was keen to stress that he wasn’t trying to take Google on, and intended to simply offer a new way of doing things, but the comparisons will inevitably be made.

I’m not going to pass judgment on the product itself, however, not least for the simple reason that I haven’t seen it in action.
But there are a few conceptual problems I have with the project as it stands.
First, there is the simple question of whether it can live up to its own hype. The approach taken so far leaves it wide open to criticism of over-promising, with Volunia doing some serious PR ahead of the launch, mainly with the Italian press and odd little pre-announcements. Such bluster usually end in disappointment — a perfect reason why you should never launch your startup in the press. Who remembers Cuil, the site that promised to take Google head on but turned into a $33 million turkey?
Second, the idea that social search has not been done is only true if you have a very particular view of what social search is. Google and Yahoo have talked a lot about it over the years — and Google has finally got around to seriously implementing that vision with its awkwardly named Search Plus Your World features. But the reality is that social search is something different today than it was to this previous generation of web companies. Right now, Facebook and Twitter are social search, because they are where people interact.
That doesn’t look much like traditional web search — certainly not the sort of search engine that Marchiori has spent his life building — but it’s hard to tell whether Volunia is a step forward or a move back.
And third, regardless of how good your service is, does it work to compete like this? Google has slugged its way to the top, and seems more likely to be unseated by antitrust investigations than straight rivals like Bing. Facebook, meanwhile, is preparing to fill up its coffers from an IPO that will probably make it unassailable in the social space as we understand it. Once somebody has won a market, is it worth fighting them on their own ground — or is it better to simply try and work out where the next big developments online are going to come from?
The Volunia team, backed by serial entrepreneur Mariano Pireddu, may be playing down their attempt to revolutionize the world. Marchiori explicitly told journalists at the press conference “not to expect the moon”.
But evidence suggests they think they can make a significant impact. By my count, judging by the various landing pages, the site appears to be launching in a dozen languages, including English, Chinese, Spanish and Japanese. That means it’s either ambitious or covering as many bases as possible — or both. It is not something that can be dismissed as merely an experiment.
Reaction online seems mixed at best. To me, everything from Volunia so far seems to suggest it’s trying to solve a problem that nobody needs to solve right now. I can’t wait to see it open up and find out whether I’m right or wrong.