Kara Swisher

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Will StumbleUpon’s New Web Look and Feel Give It Web Wings?

While rumors of its impending re-sale have apparently been greatly exaggerated, what’s true about StumbleUpon is that its new Web-centric look and feel and a new partnering program represent a major shift for the online discovery service.

The San Francisco-based company, which was founded in 2001 and sold to eBay last year for $75 million, is announcing tonight that users will no longer have to register or download its toolbar to “stumble” the Web.

Users can now simply start on StumbleUpon’s site, for example, and stumble all over the Web using their Web browser as guide rather than a toolbar.

The move is being made simply because most Internet users are increasingly loath to install Web plug-ins like toolbars, a requirement that naturally has slowed the growth of StumbleUpon’s service over time.

Currently, StumbleUpon has about six million registered users, although only a fraction of those are responsible for the approximately 12 million daily “stumbles,” all using a toolbar.

“We wanted to attract users who do not want to use a toolbar, making it easy so they could use the service right from the get-go,” said Garrett Camp, co-founder of StumbleUpon, in an interview with BoomTown earlier today.

Camp noted that that the toolbar–which has been downloaded between 11 and 12 million times–has seen that growth slow over time. Nonetheless, it is not being eliminated either.

“[Toolbar adoption] was still growing, but not accelerating,” said Camp. “Being able to stumble without one was the biggest feedback we got from users.”

Along with the Web-stumble change, StumbleUpon is also unveiling a redesigned homepage–see an example of it below; click on the image to make it larger–which is an attempt to make it more of a destination.

With the new look, visitors can find content by topic and more related to interests. Other changes include a new look for profile pages, as well as user reviews, rating and comments.

Along with its distribution shift and site renovation, StumbleUpon is unveiling a partner program called StumbleThru that will allow visitors to discover content within those sites without going to StumbleUpon.

Sites–starting with HowStuffWorks.com and the HuffingtonPost.com and followed within weeks by RollingStone.com and National Geographic–will display a StumbleUpon “badge” or custom widget.

It is not unlike similar buttons that now dot Web pages from news discovery services like Digg, which users can click to find related pages.

Essentially, much as Google (GOOG) delivers custom search within Web sites, StumbleUpon is offering custom surfing, giving publishers StumbleUpon technology to allow its users to surface content within their sites that is often deeply buried.

As to the blog reports that eBay (EBAY) had put StumbleUpon up for sale after owning it for a little more than a year, Camp essentially dismissed them, noting that the unit is still operating as an independent subsidiary of the auction giant.

“They have given us a lot of runway,” said Camp.

Here is the new front page of StumbleUpon:

Also, here is a video I did last year at the exceptionally noisy (sorry!) party that StumbleUpon threw after it was sold to eBay a little more than a year ago: