Visual search engine Ziipa lets you stumble with your eyes

Editor’s note: This is part of VentureBeat’s series “Startup Spotlight.” Every week, we’ll sift through the scores of companies applying to be promoted and profile the best one. Companies can sign up here at the Entrepreneur Corner, which is currently sponsored by Microsoft. (Of course, we’re still interested in covering startup news and innovation in our day-to-day coverage.) Today, we continue the series with Ziipa, below.

Ziipa is a rare combination of semantic search, crowdsourcing, and the random site discovery features that have made sites like StumbleUpon so popular. By using the site, you are almost guaranteed to find a site you like that you’ve never seen before. Alternatively, if you start out with a very specific query, you’re unlikely to find exactly what you’re looking for.

When you first go to the site, you see 10 thumbnails of web sites, a search box and a tag cloud — three different options for navigation. When you search for a term, like “venture capital” for instance, you generate 10 new relevant thumbnails for that keyword. When you click on one of the tags in the cloud on the right side of the site, like “health” or “music,” you also get 10 thumbnails that fit in that category. You choose the sites you want to visit based on how they look in thumbnail form — like “FluTweets” tagged under health. When you click on one of these small snapshots, you see a larger version in an interface that also lets you comment on or rank the site in question (rankings effect how search results are displayed). You can then click through to the actual site.

Like any search-based site that relies on tags, the results might not be as relevant as you’d like, but the goal here doesn’t seem to be precision or popularity. For instance, searching the “jobs” tag won’t call up the usual suspects — CareerBuilder, Monster, etc. Instead, it seems to be a suitable way to take the backroads of the internet and to accidentally find quality sites that are usually masked by the mainstream names. The same jobs search on Ziipa produces the site Reveal.com, which bears the tagline “Not your father’s monster” and bills itself as a sophisticated search engine of job candidates. Whether this type of search is something you’d be interested in is another matter.

Ziipa allows regular users to easily submit sites to its system. All you do is fill out a short form with your name, email, the name and URL of the website and a short description. The site will notify you later if it is successfully added. Then again, its easy to influence results on the site’s competitors, including StumbleUpon and other social bookmarking sites to a lesser extent.

While the Ziipa site could use a little more polish — it still looks a tad rustic — its an interesting concept. Web surfers love eye candy on the sites they visit, but it’s seldom a factor in how they actually navigate the internet. This search engine allows them to do just that. If it can attract enough users to credibly rate a much wider selection of sites, the idea might just gain enough traction to survive. But both those factors are prerequisites.

Founded last year at this time, Ziipa has not disclosed whether it has taken outside funding, nor listed any investors. It is based in Royal Palm Beach, Fla.