How StumbleUpon Works
Popular Web Sites Image Gallery is a popular online social network -- millions of people enjoy "stumbling" through the Web. See more pictures of popular web sites.
HowStuffWorks 2008

The genre of online social software has become a bit muddled in way of terminology -- a common trait among most computer naming conventions and standards. Social software (which itself may at times be called a variety of names) can include everything from blogging and social bookmarking to forums and virtual worlds. The trick is that many of the Web sites featuring these communication outlets overlap in the functions they offer users, so a general term is difficult to pin down. What all this social software has in common, however, is that it brings people together in meaningful ways within the virtual world of the Internet.

The online social software we're discussing,, could probably be called a Web browser plug-in, an online social network, an online social bookmarking network, an online social search engine -- basically StumbleUpon is an example of software that has many roles. For simplicity's sake, we'll stick to calling it an online social network in this article.


StumbleUpon (SU) was originally founded in 2002 by Geoff Smith, Garrett Camp and Justin LaFrance and is now owned by eBay. Originally based out of Calgary, Alberta, SU's headquarters has moved to San Francisco.

The key to StumbleUpon is that its users can share interesting Web content. When they find something they like online, they have a Web-based outlet through which they can let others know about the site. Other users can then view that content, through topic-orientated browsing or purposeful searching, and reciprocate the favor by sharing their own interesting finds.

StumbleUpon offers a personalized Web experience. At one time or another, every Internet user experiences difficulties getting the intended match from a query entered in a search engine. Narrowing search results can be a challenge, especially when you're not sure what you're looking for. Let's say you'd like to check o­ut some cool photos taken around the world. Type "cool photos" into a regular search engine and you might get some worthwhile links mixed in with some questionable, unrelated or uninteresting content. Try the same phrase with SU, and not only will you receive hits related to quality photography sites, the photos will crosscheck with your other interests. And you don't need to keep returning to a search page; you can simply move through the results. A tool like SU helps filter Web content into a manageable, customized experience. And the more you indicate what you like, the better StumbleUpon gets at offering content you'll appreciate.

On the next page, learn how to get started using this unique online social network.


StumbleUpon Terms

StumbleUpon terms
The Stumble! button can take you surfing through some great pages, which you can then rate with a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.
HowStuffWorks 2008

Stumbling starts like this. First, you download the Web site's browser toolbar. You'll be prompted to do this from the StumbleUpon home page. The next step starts the personalization process, where you'll be requested to select a number of topics that interest you. After that, the sky's the limit -- you can begin stumbling, search for people you know who are already stumblers (StumbleUpon users), or visit your favorite Web pages to give them favorable reviews and add them to your Favorites section. You can even start by searching through other stumblers' pages and seeing what they've stumbled.

­Are you stumped about stumbling right about now? Don't worry, picking up the lingo is easy. Here are a few important StumbleUpon terms you'll want to learn:


  • Stumble: Look to the far left of your newly installed toolbar and you'll see a button that says Stumble! If you click that button, you're taken to a random, totally new Web site. However, that Web site isn't as random as you might think. Being directed to this new site is the result of a combination of several inputs entered into an algorithm. Your interests and positively rated pages are factors, as well as other information like what your friends and similarly interested users have viewed and rated positively. Those elements and more all help determine what you'll see while you're stumbling. To understand more about how these types of online directives work, read Why is the Google algorithm so important?
  • Stumblers: StumbleUpon reported nearly 5.5 million users as of June 2008. (Keep in mind, this is the number of people who have registered, not necessarily the number of active users.) And these stumblers have been achieving an impressive amount of stumbling -- about 5 billion stumbles in all [source: Shonfeld].
  • Thumbs-up and Thumbs-down: As you are stumbling or enjoying conventional Web browsing, you can use special buttons in your SU toolbar to rate different Web sites you come across: either a thumbs-up (meaning you liked the site) or a thumbs-down (meaning you didn't). This rating system helps StumbleUpon determine the kind of pages you'll enjoy stumbling and which you'd rather avoid. The pages you've thumbed-up are added to the Pages Liked section of your profile (we'll talk more about this later on).

Referring to StumbleUpon's Getting Started Guide and Help Guide can answer a lot of questions you might have upon setting up your account and exploring the site. These pages will help you get familiar with all the different aspects of the StumbleUpon experience.

Now that you can talk the talk, can you walk the walk? Learn how to start using your new StumbleUpon toolbar on the next page, so you can surf the Internet in style.


StumbleUpon Toolbar

StumbleUpon toolbar
It's important to get familiar with everything your new StumbleUpon toolbar can do.
HowStuffWorks 2008

Let's take a closer look at the fundamental part of the StumbleUpon experience: the toolbar. To begin, you must register and download the toolbar from StumbleUpon's home page. Spend some time getting familiar with the toolbar's capacities. It has a wide range of options and elements that can be customized. This can be done by clicking where it says Tools (or where a set of arrows appears) on the far right-hand side of the toolbar, which will prompt a drop-down menu upon which you can select Toolbar Options.

For instance, you can add a search box that will send your stumbles to your different interests. On the StumbleUpon toolbar, you can also adjust your Stumble! button so you're searching through a friend's stumbled pages. To do this, go to the spot on your toolbar that's labeled Channels and select one that interests you -- in this case the Pages from… option. Friends is just one possibility though, you also have choices such as photo, video, various news media and other types of sites. Clicking on one of these will add an icon to your Stumble! button to show what channel you're currently on. If you want to return to regular stumbling, click the channel button shaped like a globe. It's also good to check for toolbar updates occasionally to find out if there are new features available.


As you get braver and start exploring StumbleUpon, chances are you're going to make a few mistakes and take a few wrong turns -- learning how to navigate a new online social network can be tricky. Maybe you rated a Web site with a thumbs-up but then changed your mind. No problem -- just revisit that page and click the same thumbs-up button again. The color should change from either green (like) or red (dislike) to the unrated blue shade (neutral). If you're what's known as the discoverer of a Web site (i.e., the first person to have stumbled across it and rated it), then you may not be able to remove your rating. After other people add reviews, you stay in SU's database as the originator of that stumble.

We used Mozilla Firefox when accessing and exploring StumbleUpon. The Web site may look a little different than what's written here if you use a different Web browser, like Internet Explorer. For example, actions like deleting pages you've rated could prove a little trickier and you may not have as many options on your toolbar. Some Web browsers may offer a varied experience; others don't support StumbleUpon at all. Mozilla Firefox is a commonly used browser among stumblers.

We've explored the StumbleUpon toolbar and some of the basic terminology, but there's still more to learn before you can make full use of everything this online social network has to offer. Continue to the next page to learn about navigating through



Taking Your First Stumble

StumbleUpon topics
You can tell if a topic is popular by the size and width of the font. The larger and bolder a topic is displayed, the more popular it is.
HowStuffWorks 2008

What else can you do besides giving your thumbs-up (or thumbs-down) for a page? Well, once you've experienced your first stumble and rated some sites, you can revisit them and the reviews you provided by clicking on the Favorites tab of your SU home page. There you'll find entries under tab categories such as Pages Liked, Pages Discovered, Pages Blogged and Top Picks of other stumblers in subjects that interest you. You'll also be able to add a post to your blog through the Post to Blog link. There are two main courses of action you can take from here: You can either edit the tags that help organize and identify each entry or you can write reviews of the entries and add them to your blog.

In order to complete either of these actions, you can scroll over the entry and the option to edit it will suddenly appear. (If it's an existing post already in your blog, you'll have the option to delete the entry.) Also, you can click where the entry lists the number of other people's reviews. This will bring you to the entry's main review page, where you can review what other people think of that particular piece of Web content.


You can blog the Web content you enjoy either by adding a review to the entry or beginning an entirely new blog. Creating a blog can be basic or fairly detailed. Many great tips and discussions about blogging and other topics are available to you if you join an SU group, like the Helpful Stumblers group.

Now let's talk more about the two methods for labeling stumbles. The first (and newer) way is called tagging, and you'll see tagging mentioned often in the SU sphere. Tagging is when you add explanatory keywords, or tags, to an entry in order to describe it. Tags can be helpful by providing a greater variety of ways for entries to be found. You can view your tags by clicking where it says Find Pages You Like in the right-hand taskbar. (Hide the tags by clicking the bar a second time.)


The other (original) classification method uses topics. There can be only one topic assigned to each entry, and if you discover a new stumble, you'll be asked to choose a topic for it. SU asks that you choose wisely -- the decision can be very important to the future of your newfound stumble. If you categorize it poorly, people probably won't appreciate your stumble as much and won't rank it favorably. Stumblers might not give your stumble a positive review -- increasing the chance that less people will end up viewing your entry while stumbling.

StumbleUpon has a pool of more than 500 topics and a system that automatically labels Web content through the words on the page -- SU reports this system is effective 90 percent of the time. For the other 10 percent of the time when a topic is improperly selected, you can report the error by selecting Report Last Stumble in your toolbar drop-down menu. You can report a page for a variety of complaints (not just issues dealing with topics), so check out the options if you're receiving some bad stumbles.

reporting problems on StumbleUpon
When you report any problems you come across while stumbling, you help enhance the stumbling experience for everyone.
HowStuffWorks 2008

You might be wondering how these topics and tags affect you. Remember when you indentified your interests when you first signed up? That's how you chose the topics that helped SU send enjoyable pages your way. You can revisit this page and change your topics or add more by visiting the Preferences tab. This is also where you can add a picture and other details about yourself to personalize your profile page.

The process may sound complicated, but you'll get the hang of it. Let's move on and talk about the social aspects of this online social network.



StumbleUpon Society

StumbleUpon friends
Use the Connect With Friends option to find your friends.
HowStuffWorks 2008

Now that we've looked into what you can do in your Favorites tab, let's slide over and check out the Friends tab. You can begin collecting friends by searching for people you already know who use SU and subscribe to their stumbles. In other words, pages that your friends have rated will pop up from time to time while you're stumbling. Subscribe to your friends' stumbles by searching for their usernames or e-mail addresses in the Find A Friend search bar on the lower left-hand portion of your Friends page. Or, you can click the Connect With Friends option, located on the right taskbar of your profile page. There, you'll be prompted to search a variety of other Web sites to see if any of your contacts are already stumblers. MSN Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, Gmail, AOL and Facebook are among the choices.

Friends don't necessarily have to be people you already know. The idea is to add people as friends who have similar interests as you, so you can build your stumbling experience into a wider network of cool Web pages. And don't get confused if you see the term fan. When you add friends, you become their fan and vice versa. As people become fans of yours, you'll all be stumbling along together as members of the StumbleUpon society.


Groups are a popular feature of The easiest way to access these groups is to go through the main People tab and choose a topic. SU will recommend some groups, as well as popular stumbles in that category and users who share that common interest. You can search for all different kinds of groups and if you see one you like, you should join. Then you can start forum discussions, exchange information and advice, and post messages on existing conversations. There are groups dedicated to all kinds of topics. Some of the most popular groups are Firefox, Awesome Pictures, Bizarre Hunter, Photography and Music Geeks.

Once you've joined a group, a new Groups tab will be available on your main profile page. While you're on the Groups tab, suggested groups you might enjoy will pop up below the taskbar. You can get more suggestions if you follow the link beneath your top matches. From there you can also search the newest groups as well as SU's entire collection of groups.

Believe it or not, these were really just the basics of the StumbleUpon world. The best route to take from here is to start exploring. Check out the rest of the links on your profile page to see where they take you; discover what other stumblers are up to; join a few groups; and become a fan of cool stumblers. Above all, rate pages. The more pages you rate, the better results you and those who share your interests will receive. Visit the links on the next page to learn more about


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • "About StumbleUpon." (6/23/3008)
  • Bogo, Mike. "Ultimate StumbleUpon Resource." Marketing and Monetizing. 2/22/2007. (6/23/3008)
  • Business 2.0 Staff. "Startups to watch." Business 2.0 Magazine. (6/23/2008)
  • "General Tips." (6/23/3008)
  • "Getting Started With StumbleUpon." (6/23/3008)
  • "Help." (6/23/2008)
  • "Helpful Stumblers." Helpful Stumblers Discussion Forum. (6/23/2008)
  • "Internet History." Computer History Museum. 2006. (6/23/2008)
  • "iProspect Social Networking User Behavior Study." iProspect. 4/2007 (6/24/2008) socialnetworkingbehavior.htm
  • "Mr-helpful." Mr-helpful's profile page. (6/23/2008)
  • Olthius, Cameron. "Five Tactics For Driving Traffic From StumbleUpon." 7/24/2007. (6/24/2008)
  • Schonfeld, Erick. "Five Million Users and Nearly Five Billion Stumbles Later." Tech Crunch. 4/23/2008. (6/24/2008) five-million-users-and-nearly-five-billion-stumbles-later/
  • "StumbleUpon Design Overview." (6/23/3008)
  • "StumbleUpon Fact Sheet." (6/23/3008)
  • Walp, Joe. "Unofficial StumbleUpon Frequently Asked Questions." The Prawn. (6/23/2008)