For most consumer internet startups, more is better when it comes to
traffic. But Hunch, the recommendation engine co-founded by Flickr
co-founder Caterina Fake, has a hunch: when it comes to traffic, less
is actually more.

So yesterday Hunch made a drastic change to its service, which comScore
estimates receives approximately 750,000 unique visitors each month: it
cut off access to users who aren’t registered and logged in. Fake told
TechCrunch that she thought “traffic will plummet” in the wake of this,
but that “users who are using the product will have a significant lift
in the quality of results.

It’s a bold move. While Hunch certainly isn’t the first service to make fundamental changes to the way users access it, in general, there seems to be a greater tendency to go from more closed to more open. Facebook is the perfect example of that. Once closed to everybody except students at particular colleges in the United States, it has gradually opened up so that even non-members can, in many cases, view some Facebook content.

Given what Hunch is trying to accomplish, the change makes some sense. But whether it’s worth it is subject to debate. One TechCrunch commenter suggested, “They’re making a substantial conversion mistake by making users sign up before they can test the product out.” It’s a valid point, especially at this stage of Hunch’s life. Although the site has grown to 750,000 uniques per month over the past year, Hunch is clearly no Flickr when it comes to adoption.

While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to serve your users better, it seems Hunch is more concerned about perfecting the relevance of the answers it can provide users and less concerned about finding the perfect balance between relevance and reach. Like it or not, success is probably more dependent on the latter, and even if Hunch does improve quality as a result of its move, it’s probably going to be very difficult to grow a service of Hunch’s size and profile without giving users a taste of the benefits before they sign up.

Given this, Hunch might want to consider basing its decision on truths instead of hunches. And one unfortunate truth on the consumer internet is this: if you’re offering a free product targeting the mainstream, less traffic usually isn’t more. Unless Hunch is a play on someday charging its users (unlikely) or getting bought out by a bigger company (more likely), it may learn that hunches can be dangerous.