Exploring Pinterest’s Data Goldmine

“There might be something going on in California.”, said Anthony Michael Hall as he played Bill Gates in the movie, Pirates of Silicon Valley. Little did the movie writers know this line would hit home with med student Ben Silbermann to begin a chain of events leading to one of today’s top web services, Pinterest. Pinterest’s successes, as that of its visionary, have come from a series of subtle, but impactful reinventions and pivots over time.

Ben moved to California to begin his dream job at Google doing analysis work, which he had done as a consultant in the past. With a product vision swirling in his mind and inspired not only by the tech startup atmosphere in the Valley, but also by the big dreams fostered by Google’s culture, he quit Google and joined forces with his friend Paul Sciarra to found Cold Brew Labs in 2008.

His vision became a new app called Tote, which was launched in early 2009. It was a shopping app that pulled data from online product catalogs, which could be searched and sorted by product and location. The app fell flat due to the fact that online shopping was still in its infancy. The Apple App Store was also in its early stages, leading to slow turnarounds for the explosion of developers eager to get their apps to market and to iterate regularly.

Tote wasn’t performing as expected, but in observing the behavior of users who did adopt the app, many of them were using it in an unintended way: they were sending images of products to themselves to collect. An avid collector himself, Silbermann’s vision became more clear: build a web service around a user’s desire to save and collect information. This would enable them to discover, save and then go out and do — be inspired to follow through on their interests and dreams. This, along with other observations and ideas led to the “very progressive iteration” of Tote, the bones upon which Pinterest was eventually built.

At the beginning of 2011, prior Columbia architecture student and Facebook designer, Evan Sharp, joined the team. His guidance on where to begin? Ben Silbermann quotes Sharp as saying, “What’s the one thing that’s most important? What’s the one thing that, if it’s not beautiful, if it’s not great, the rest of the site, it won’t matter at all?”

Silbermann’s answer, which is the same today as it was back then is, “Pinterest is the place to plan the most important projects in your life.”; “Our mission is not to keep you online, it’s to get you offline. Pinterest should inspire you to go out and do the things you love.”

It was Sharp’s contributions to Pinterest’s design that led to the iconic grid of Pinterest Pins, now called the “card layout” design that has become so predominant in today’s digital experiences.

The team, with fewer than ten people working out of a house in Palo Alto, California, set out to refine and further develop the site to prepare it for the day when it could be fully released. As Pinterest was being developed, users were recruited by invite-only and the site gained a small fanatical following, along with a few hopeful investors. They began by holding user meetups to gain feedback for development, cultivate a sense of community, build up a collection of Pins and get the word out about the site. As a group, they held campaigns week-to-week called “Pin It Forward”, where users would create Pin Boards using prompts like “What Home Means for Me” or “Things that look like the Death Star”. In exchange for their participation, they’d be rewarded with more invites that they could pass along to other users. It was at this time that Silbermann noted that people, once again, were using Pinterest in unexpected ways. For example, people started creating collections of tour guides for different cities or sharing maps — it wasn’t solely about shopping.

Office Sign featured in Silbermann’s 2012 Alt Summit Keynote

Hanging in the office during the early days of Pinterest was a sign that quoted Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as saying, “Move fast and break things.” It speaks to the sense of urgency to innovate within startup tech companies in the fight to retain and grow their user bases in spite of a very competitive market. Due to these high stakes, Silbermann insisted on only iterating using fully-coded, high-resolution versions of the site in order to gain the most productive feedback from users — no prototypes or wireframes here.

The team continued to iterate and nurture its fledgling community over the next year or two until Time Magazine named Pinterest as one of the 50 Websites that Make the Web Great. It described Pinterest as a service that “lets you create and share collections of stuff you like in any category you choose”; “Pinterest makes the process painless by offering a Pin It button that lets you grab pictures of your favorite things as you browse the web. The site then collects the images on ‘boards’ that other users can follow and comment on. Perusing other folks’ boards, featuring everything from picturesque travel scenes to oddly beautiful bacteria, is as enjoyable as building your own.” That was August 2011. By early February, 2012, Techcrunch reported that “Pinterest reaches 10 Million US Monthly Uniques Faster Than Any Standalone Site Ever”.

Also in early 2012, Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic described Pinterest as “visual bookmarking” similar to Tumblr or Delicious and the repining process can be compared to performing a Tumblr reblog or Twitter retweet. By contrast, she says that it isn’t like Reddit in that it doesn’t contain news or community-created “weird stuff”. She also noted that it’s helpful for planning a wedding because you can efficiently accumulate examples of things in a particular category.

What started out as three simple pieces of web catalog data: an image, description and website source, had been brought to life by the ability to create, collect and categorize digital “idea cards”, and has today become the third largest site among social media players. Pinterest helps users easily curate digital collections of information that they can later access in order to have new experiences and build their knowledge and skills. It’s through these experiences over time that they then may gain wisdom. At any stage, these users may share information (in the form of a Pin) or knowledge/wisdom as they relay their experiences, made easy by Pinterest, with one another.

Ben Silbermann’s First Pin, January 2010

So what’s Pinterest doing right? What has contributed to their success? What’s in their secret sauce?

Design. Ben Silbermann’s philosophy is: “Make one thing perfect — this means that if there’s something that’s important, there’s something you’re hanging the rest of your business and the rest of your future on, you can’t be compromising in the quality of its execution.” It’s true the details are so important. In the early days, when the Pinterest team argued over whether there should be ten pixels of margin or eight, they knew these small decisions would all play into a design that would be able to stand the test of time. So far this has been proven not only by Pinterest’s own continued use of the grid framework and basic Pin design, but also by the number of websites and apps that have also adopted its design. It’s clean, efficient and elegant.

Pinterest has also done a nice job of keeping key call-to-action buttons prominent, placing “Save” in the prime upper-right-hand corner space and by making click-through easy. The user can choose between clicking on the Pin’s image, the website source text or the “Visit” button to get to the Pin’s source website. Below is the “anatomy” of a Pin, which shows a wireframe of the interactions and data source for each control. I’m using colors to illustrate the areas that contribute to Pinterest’s primary user goals of Discover, Save and Do, which get warmer as the user progresses toward the goal of click-through. Click-through is an important goal that not only serves the founding vision of inspiring users to do an activity, (by reading the details on the source websites of the saved Pins) but it’s also how websites like Pinterest can monetize: by proving their level of traffic and potential click-through to a potential sponsor’s website.

Structure. Speaking of design, Pinterest has been careful to keep the site structure open-ended to allow users to be able to shape how they use it, making it more flexible, scalable and adaptable to user expectations and trends. They also offer a variety of ways for users to discover pins. They can perform a typical keyword search, see topics in a category, find pins that are related or even find pins that are visually similar. Sometimes, the ability to browse and hunt for the next great idea or recipe is as fun, if not more fun, than saving or even doing the activity itself. Allowing users to search in whatever way is most natural to them or best for the type of Pin they’re looking for is important in keeping them satisfied and engaged. Pinterest has done a nice job in getting out of the way of users’ missions explore and build their Pin Board collections.

Consistency. From a branding perspective, having a consistent mission and focus for a team to rally around is important for employees and users alike to learn about the tool and the company behind it. When companies change focus too often or too much, people begin to get confused or maybe even begin to mistrust the brand or website. Brand trust comes from a combination of quality, innovation, history and integrity and Pinterest has endeavored (and succeeded) to continue to deliver on every measure.

From a design perspective, the user experience is also very consistent in that the user is viewing either a grid in the form of a series of Pins/Pin Boards or a single Pin that they are able to view, edit or save, depending on their context within the site. The design is simple and straightforward with a strong repeating pattern of visuals and cycle of behavior. (Discover -> Save -> Do)

Traffic. Pinterest, having grown to become a leading website, shows credibility in the simple fact that it’s so heavily used and talked about. In addition, it’s equally as important that Pinterest displays a high level of traffic by continuing to expose its users to new material no matter if they visit the site five times a day or fifty. In the early days, (I was lucky enough to be one of the early invite-only users) since the community was still developing and was somewhat closed, I’d often see a minimal amount of updates in my Home Feed. Today, I can return to Pinterest every five minutes and see new Pins, even if I only return each time to my same home feed. What’s changed? Instead of Pinterest offering only Pins of those that you follow, it now randomly sprinkles in Pins that are “Picked for You” based on the keywords of recent interactions with Pins and changes them up with each view. There are also now Promoted Pins, which are paid for by companies, that offer new content shown only if they match the types of Pins you typically view or save. With this reinvented Home Feed, the user gets to continue to see the Pins of those they Follow as before, but also gets the benefit of the other pins as a source of continually refreshed input.

Onboarding. Pinterest helps to get users started first by offering them a guided onboarding experience using forms and instructions that are very brief, visual, light on text and in language that is easy to understand. Once they get through entering the initial information, users are guided by pulsating blue dots and brief in-experience messages on important points of interest. Lastly, they serve tips and relevant inspiration for returning to Pinterest through sending personalized emails on a regular basis. Below is the full summary of a user’s flow through the on-boarding process and saving their first Pin on their first Pin Board. I’ve included a more visual-style walk-through using screen shots of the process below as well.

Pinterest Flow — Visual Walkthrough

When a user lands on Pinterest for the first time, they are required to either log in or create an account. There is no “free” exploration on this territory — but it’s difficult to resist as it teases with blurry visions of pins floating in the background.

Thankfully, the sign-up process is short — email, password, name, age and gender are the only bits of information needed to gain access. Facebook connect is also a possibility to reduce the number of passwords in your brain. Overall, this is pretty painless as website sign-ups go, which would increase the probability of users completing the process and keeps them excited about getting into the site to start exploring.

Pinterest guides the user through the first actions needed to help them get started finding and saving Pins. First, it asks the user to select a minimum of five topics to “build a custom home feed for you”. This selection of topics serves as a base set of keywords Pinterest can associate to the user to help match them with Pins that will be interesting from the get-go. It’s also a nice touch that there’s a little “Step 1 of 2” to help a new user feel confident set up will be a brief process, since there’s just one more step to go.

The next thing it has you do is install the Pinterest bookmarklet (optional) which is required for a user to save (Pin) new content from anywhere on the Internet. This seemingly small detail is vital to Pinterest since that is the mechanism that helps users bring new blood and life to the platform. Without the bookmarklet, Pinterest would operate as a closed-system “terrarium” and would quickly find itself out of date and irrelevant to many users. If the users didn’t have the ability to add content, Pinterest staff would have to put everything they think is relevant on the site. This would be both impractical and foolish, since it is only the users that can decide how they want to use Pinterest and which Pins are most relevant to them to save. The bookmarklet also serves to marry the user’s profile to the Pinned website’s image/data which is displayed as part of the basic information for the Pin.

If the user installs the bookmarklet, they are given a quick, visual tutorial of how the bookmarklet works so they are more likely to use it in the future.

From there, the user sees their “home feed” for the first time and can start searching and pinning. This is also the entrance point for returning users to the site once they are logged in. The main difference between a new and returning user experience is that from this point are messages and pulsating dots highlighted in blue to help orient and guide the user when they first start to use Pinterest. The first of these blue guidance messages can be seen at the bottom of the screen shown below.

Once the user finds a Pin they like and click on it, they can:

· Scroll down to read more about it or see related Pins

· Save it (Pin it)

· Like it

· Share it

· Click on it to view the full content on the source site

· Return to the home feed

· Begin the search cycle over again

True to the Pinterest team’s sense of urgency to continue to iterate and develop at a rapid pace, the site has gone through many, many (albeit subtle) changes over the last several years. One of the larger enhancements were Rich Pins, introduced in 2013. This new feature was a boon to users and businesses alike, because it allowed additional data/content to be added right into the single Pin view on certain categories of Pins. The types of Rich Pins offered include app, movie, recipe, article, product and place. For example, in the case of a recipe, the ingredients are available to view right on the Pin without needing to click through to the source site. This was more convenient for users and also made the quality of click-through counts more accurate for the source sites.

Rich pins rely on the source website’s data being tagged specifically to enable the Pinterest browser bookmarklet to recognize and pass through the additional content. To get set up, Pinterest directs website developers to http://www.schema.org to learn how to use the appropriate tags for their website data so it is recognized and picked up by the bookmarklet so it can then be displayed on the Pin.

While there are several different types of Rich Pins with their own sets of data nuances, for the purposes of this project, I’d like to focus on exploring the Movie Rich Pin. Earlier this term, I had completed a series of projects where I learned about data architecture through scraping data from a website, marking it up in HTML5 and finally building user flows/wireframes around the initial data set that could be used to create additional value to potential users. In my case, I used data from the IMDB.com movie database website as my source for this initial data set. As luck would have it, IMDB is also one of the websites that has included Movie Rich Pin-friendly data on its website for the Pinterest bookmarklet.

Below are the supported tags for Movie Rich Pins as shown on https://developers.pinterest.com/docs/rich-pins/movies/

Note that there are many more metadata types listed for movies on http://schema.org/Movie, however, Pinterest only supports certain tags for Rich Pins.

IMDB is using a smaller subset of available movie tags for Pinterest. Of the list, they are using URL, Name, Actor, Director and Aggregate Rating. Here is an example of a Movie Rich Pin captured from IMDB alongside their website’s source code that includes the Rich Pin-friendly data:

Once this movie is Pinned by a user using the Pinterest browser bookmarklet on IMDB’s site, the captured data comes across into Pinterest’s framework as follows:

Looking at Pinterest’s taxonomy and tags, they are prioritizing the movie title, year and source website, followed by letter age rating and IMDB’s popularity rating. Further down in priority are the names of the director and actors. When I originally marked up this same set of HTML, I also used the Heading (H-tags) to show importance of certain types of data, although what I was missing were the more descriptive class tags that tell a search engine what type of information the data contains. For example, the H1 class=”viewerRating” tells the browser or search engine that there is a piece of data related to viewer rating within the tag. While my prioritization of this data was in a similar order, the key difference was that genre played a vital role in movie categorization and in the search/discovery process for my users. I was surprised that genre isn’t a supported tag in Pinterest, even though it is included on http://schema.org/Movie. In Pinterest, I tried a search for “Crime, Drama, Movie”, and The Godfather was nowhere near the top the Pin results, although granted, it is an old movie. The very first result came up because the person who had Pinned the movie had added the genre of the movie in the description field. The second result was a horror movie (“The Diabolical”) that didn’t seem to have Crime or Drama anywhere in the description, and the third result (“Barbershop: The Next Cut”) was a comedy that also didn’t seem to match whatsoever. While it may be true that Pinterest’s primary focus isn’t movies, the fact that they offer Rich Pins for this category tells me that it was a popular enough category to warrant inclusion in the Rich Pin feature set. If Pinterest wants to do movie rich pins justice, I feel strongly that genre tags should be supported in the future to make movies that much easier to explore.

As for other overall recommendations for Pinterest, my biggest pet-peeve for new (and sometimes existing!) users is the fact that everyone is forced to sign up or login prior to browsing the Pins. True, the sign up/sign in process has been made as easy and palatable as possible, but perhaps Pinterest wouldn’t have to work quite as hard to hook users on its website if it opened up its interface. YouTube operates on an open interface and it easily competes against search engines for users looking to find videos on anything from how to fix your lawnmower to the latest and greatest crazy cats. There have been many times that I was away from my computer, (where I’m constantly logged in) and had wanted to look up a quick recipe but couldn’t because I didn’t have my password, nor did I want to worry about the reset password process.

My last small complaint about Pinterest is that in at least one instance, its data isn’t as clean as it should be. For example, when I browse the pre-curated Humor category, there are(of course) lots of fun, funny Pins. However, mixed into these Pins are loads of nursing school Pins — around every fifth Pin is nursing or healthcare related. I’m not sure how it happened, but as a user, I’m browsing, looking for something relaxing and fun and I run into a Pin that shows a picture of cadaver smoker’s lungs or some gnarly illustration of diseases of the intestine. That is one data mystery that I’ll be happy to see ironed out, hopefully at some point in the future.

Many of Pinterest’s updates and changes have and will continue to be around more finely personalizing and predicting a users’ interests. This function has drastically improved since the site’s inception, but smarter tools that help the user accomplish their goals easier and faster continue to be at the leading edge of development. Innovations like the predictive board picker, which helps users save pins to the appropriate board based on the content of the Pin make the Pinning process more smooth and helps ensure Pins are categorized as accurately as possible. Perhaps the biggest Pinterest news in the last year or two is Pinterest’s focus on monetization. Promoted Pins are now commonplace and had recently expanded to “Cinematic Pins”, which act as an animated flip book that goes back and forth to grab the user’s attention as they scroll up and down. Just this week, Pinterest announced it would finally jump on the video bandwagon and allow full auto-play video with sound in Promoted Pins with up to six Buyable Pins below each video. While I don’t disagree that Pinterest needs to continue to support itself through monetization, the notion of full autoplay video in my Home Feed makes me shudder. As an avid fan, I trust that Pinterest will stay true to its foundational vision of helping users to Discover, Save and Do and I won’t have to wait 15 seconds to skip an ad to do it.

This past April, Pinterest announced it would launch a major design overhaul — which didn’t necessarily mean making any dramatic changes to the front end. The reason for this major overhaul? To reach more users in previously untapped markets, including global. The changes that were put into place were in order for Pinterest to work more quickly and smoothly, even on low-end devices often found in other countries. Global markets bring an entirely new set of data challenges, in the form of cultural differences and tastes in images, interests and even typefaces. Pinterest has begun this monumental task to move beyond its US “mom audience” by setting up offices and conducting research in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Brazil and Japan. Researching and testing in these new countries has allowed them to work on their algorithm to help show culturally relevant content to its users based on location.

Beyond its reported efforts already in progress, Pinterest has the potential to move into a large and varied number of business directions. Here are a few ideas I have as I think of other ways Pinterest might serve its users:

  • They could offer location-based Pin suggestions for people who are sightseeing — similar to other types of Travel services like Yelp.
  • They could offer a form of sub-categorization where users could create relationships between Pin Boards to allow them to keep similar types of Pins together. For example, if you’re planning wedding, you could connect previously separate boards of Pin ideas for the wedding dress, flowers, photo ideas, etc.
  • Similar to the service I created for my previous project, they could link from Movie Pins right to possible viewing options and pricing.
  • They could begin to offer more Pins based on your GPS or browser data in tracking where you have been either physically or digitally — as long as they are careful to stay out of the creepy uncanny valley of web tracking and internet advertising.

Although Pinterest had humble beginnings, once it finally took off, it has seemed to have led a rather charmed life in cyberspace. I credit the company’s focused vision, solid foundation and elegant design to position it for success. The Bill Gates character in the Pirates of Silicon Valley was right, there certainly was something going on in California — and Pinterest was able to show that it too could strike gold with little more than a dream, a bit of data and a some pixels on a computer screen.


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