How Pinterest Developed Its New Search Engine

Jason Wilson, Pinterest’s lead designer, tells BuzzFeed in an interview how the social network’s visual search engine was born.

SAN FRANCISCO — As a student, Jason Wilson, one of Pinterest’s lead designers, had problems comprehending a wide range of subjects. His issues understanding classroom lessons were significant enough to slow Wilson down, if not hold him back. But a family friend taught him about “mind maps,” which are basically giant flow charts that break down a complicated topic into smaller ones and show how they are connected visually, often with Post-it Notes.

That helped both inside the classroom and later in life. Guided Search, the visually driven search engine Wilson and his team designed for Pinterest, basically works the same way Wilson’s brain functions. Unveiled in late April at an event with both press and Pinterest power users, Guided Search takes a simple search term like “shoes” and provides the users with a number of what Pinterest calls “tokens” — extra terms that further refine the search — that users can tap on.

“Typing is actually problematic for me,” Wilson said in an interview with BuzzFeed. “Part of building this was selfish, thinking, Let’s build out as much typing as we can. And you can think in the future, without giving out too many secrets, but voice and camera and all that — typing’s the wrong thing for this device.”

Pinterest had a search team prior to the launch of Guided Search, but developing a proprietary discovery engine wasn’t really a company-wide initiative (and wasn’t even on the company’s road map). Wilson, however, felt that the social network that has traditionally been known for finding recipes or fashion ideas was uniquely positioned to leverage the visual-heavy curated pages of its users to build out a more graphics-oriented search engine. He met with CEO Ben Silbermann in December and proposed that Pinterest mobilize a team to develop a visual search engine.

The move was one Pinterest’s investors had been salivating over for years. The company is widely considered in the investor and technical community to have the best tools to help users discover and share things (internally, Pinterest refers to them as “objects”) ranging from photos and recipes to locations and video. That prospect has dramatic implications for the future of commerce on the web, something Wilson himself acknowledges.

Pinterest has been able to build a rabid user base and also raise more than $500 million across several rounds of funding — the last of which in October last year valued the company at $3.8 billion. Adding a search layer gives its users a reason to come back more often, and also gives Pinterest another avenue to put things that people might want to buy in front of them at just the right time.

“Mother’s Day is on Sunday. I need to get flowers for my wife, so I google, ‘Where can I get roses?’ Don’t mess with that, they have it nailed, and they have armies to continue owning it,” Wilson said. “But rather, we say, ‘Hey, I want Mother’s Day presents, but I don’t know what to get’ — we’re a better way for that.”

Pinterest lead designer Jason Wilson takes to the whiteboard to explain his theories about search. On the left is Google, which uses crawlers. Pinterest is on the right, using what Pinterest visitors search for as the engine’s “gas.” BuzzFeed/Matthew Lynley

Wilson, an alumni of Facebook, Apple, and Lytro, leads Pinterest’s search team, along with Hui Xu, who was at Google for eight years working on that company’s search engine. The rest of the team sports a similar pedigree — Wilson recruited Pinterest’s lead iOS developer Naveen Gavini to build out the Guided Search prototype, for instance.

After getting the green light from Silbermann, Wilson and his team holed up for months in one of Pinterest’s research labs underneath the office, dubbed the “bunker,” where even the small basement windows that would provide a nominal amount of sunlight are blacked out. Wilson didn’t even shave until the project was complete, causing many Pinterest employees — and even Silbermann himself — to do a double take when Wilson arrived to the interview clean-shaven.

Wilson described Guided Search as using a “different kind of gas” than other text-based search engines, of which Google’s is, of course, the most popular. What he means is that Pinterest uses a different mechanism than other search engines for determining what’s most important for a user to see when they search for something.

For Google, for instance, that mechanism is called PageRank: essentially a ranking of a result based on how prominently it is featured on the web and how it is connected across various websites and services. Google’s servers are constantly poking around the web and determining what is most important when users search for something, and it is also increasingly tracking what its users do in order to better serve search results.

“Google’s very much been the de facto search engine. I personally think people who go after Google in their own space are gonna get destroyed,” Wilson said. But he added that even Google has its limits. “My father loves red wine, he can tell you more about red wine and the relationship to food, to region, to culture than Google.”

“Google can’t crack that,” he said. “It’s this tapestry that humans have, contextual relations, there’s no mapping it.”

Naveen Gavini, Pinterest’s lead iOS developer. BuzzFeed/Matthew Lynley

Pinterest isn’t trying to go head-to-head with Google, it is trying to offer an alternative. The mechanism Guided Search uses to determine what search results to show involves a “cocktail” that includes what its total user base is looking for and what is popular at a specific time on the web. Pinterest doesn’t have to know exactly what a user’s specific behavior is on the site because the site works off the idea that its user base better understands what’s important than an algorithm detecting what is most prominent on the web.

Wilson said the idea was born, in part, from the way its users were already searching on the site. He noticed that Pinterest users were constantly refining their searches while on the site by deleting previous terms and getting more specific — for example, users would type “shoes,” then delete that and type “skateboarding shoes.”

“Think of the manual input, it’s just crazy,” he said. “What we’re seeing is a pattern of people having a root and then a string. They are putting together a sentence. How can we aid them, how can we say, it’s like a fill-in-the-blank, you get to fill in your sentence.”

Currently, Pinterest considers itself able to search “two-dimensionally,” or around, for instance, what users typed and what related topics they pick. Eventually, Wilson’s goal is to allow users to execute searches “three-dimensionally.” Though he wouldn’t get into specifics, it’s not hard to imagine what might feed Pinterest’s ends, like using voice or camera functions in addition to, or perhaps instead of, typing. Those ambitions can be seen in Pinterest’s recent purchase of a startup that specializes in visual search.

However, given that Silicon Valley is essentially in land-grab mode when it comes to technology companies despite a recent downturn in the market, Wilson is realistic about how much work the company has to do. “The general feel, from the public, is that it’s a good idea,” he said. “Now we’ll have to further vet that, but if it turns out to be the right way to do it, you gotta put your money down and run with it.”

“Honestly, I’m a very sort of nutty-thinking guy,” he added. “I hope that the company and Ben and Evan can stay with me in really going for the moon with the realities of being a new business and needing revenue. They’ve got to focus on that for the health of the company, that’s more important than what I’m talking about. But for me it’s been such a fun ride and I feel like we are right on the cusp of being a crazy-better service today even after this.”

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