Personalized News Service TrapIt Growing as Competition Increases

Personalized content discovery engine TrapIt is now delivering almost four million articles to users every day, and has passed four million unique visitors since its launch in June 2011. The service, which features content from over 100,000 sources, had its biggest month in March 2012, with over 700,000 people interacting with TrapIt content.

Several news curation services have launched recently, including Prismatic and Wavii. It seems like startups are jumping at the chance to enter the news curation space, but in TrapIt’s case they have some unique technology to back up their product. The company  was part of the CALO (Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes) project, a research project that spawned Siri, which is now best known as Apple’s smart assistant. TrapIt was the second consumer product to launch from the program, two years after Siri. “While they were using CALO technology to revolutionize human device interaction on the mobile platform, we’re going to use the same technology to revolutionize content discovery on the web and various platforms like tablets,” TrapIt founder Henry “Hank” Nothhaft, Jr. said in an interview.

Nothhaft started the company because he saw two challenges with personalized content – he believed it was too noisy on the social side, and it was hard to uncover new sources through search engines. Rather than relying on a user’s social graph, or allowing users to follow set topics or outlets, TrapIt revolves around a topic-based model that allows users to create a news “trap” around any keyword, URL or existing article. TrapIt recommends related content to users based on their traps, based on the last 30 days of indexed content on TrapIt. Users can search content without creating a trap, but once they “trap it,” a search becomes persistent, and dynamically updates when new related content is indexed. Traps also update when a user rates an article by giving it a thumbs up or thumbs down. The site also features a real-time activity feed with breaking news, as well as trending traps, and curated traps from an in-house editorial team.

“There are literally millions of pieces of original created each day, so this is kind of like a Tivo for the real-time web in that it learns your preferences and the topics you’re interested in and it listens to the firehose and pulls out the best stuff for you, and then when you’re ready you come back and it’s here waiting and organized in these topic-based traps,” Nothhaft said. Similar to Summify or digests, TrapIt emails every day to notify them about new content added to their traps, and they’re looking to add customized alerts and on-demand notifications for breaking news.

The web-based tool is free for users, and an upcoming iPad app will be free as well (with HTML5 and iPhone versions planned after its release). Nothhaft said the company will offer a premium subscription, and will provide publishers with the ability to advertise and sell premium articles and content within traps. The company raised $6 million in Series A funding in December 2011, led by Horizons Ventures, which also backed Siri.

There is no shortage of competition when it comes to news curation services, and aside from discovery-focused services like Prismatic, there are social readers like Flipboard and Zite, which was acquired by CNN in August 2011. “While Flipboard and Pulse are beautifully designed, really fun applications to interact with, they’re not doing anything to address the issue of discovery, they’re really just the next generation of an RSS reader,” Nothhaft said, adding that users still have to follow a feed from a publisher, rather than following a topic (Prismatic allows users to follow set topics, but not topics based around any keyword). And while he admits that Twitter is a great way to find the news, he believes it’s hard to discover new sources.”What we’ve found that these services are really just an echo chamber. It’s the same sources you see over and over again,” he said. “What we believe is that there’s a whole undiscovered web of excellent content out there that’s being written and produced by people that are very passionate about their hobbies, their work, their interests, and they’re putting together great content that just isn’t being discovered.”

While the competition is fierce, TrapIt has the technology to back up its service, and it offers a unique value proposition to users who want to read content from sources outside of the big publishers and blogs. But finding a way to effectively monetize will likely be the biggest challenge – if traditional publishers are finding advertising to be a dying business model, and if users are increasingly reluctant to pay for content, TrapIt will have to find a unique way to attract revenue and not just traction with readers.

Erin Bury

Erin Bury

Erin Bury is a Co-founder and CEO at Willful, an online estate planning platform. Also a former Managing Director at Eighty-Eight, a creative communications agency based in Toronto. She was formerly the Managing Editor at BetaKit. Follow her on Twitter at @erinbury.

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