In the 1990s, searching the sprawling network of Web pages across the Internet was a hit-or-miss endeavor. Then Google arrived with algorithms that ranked pages across the Web according to their popularity (roughly measured by the number of incoming links). In 2005, search technology became much more directed. “Vertical” search – searching within an industry, subject, or activity – is becoming more popular. Technorati.com searches millions of blogs, while IT.com and Become.com offer specialized results to corporate infotech buyers and shoppers, and Google is scanning and indexing library books. Along with competitors Microsoft and Yahoo, Google is also offering local searches, complete with driving directions, user recommendations, and maps that show road, satellite, and aerial views of cities.
This year has also seen the emergence of “anti-algorithm” search methods, which rely on Flickr- and Delicious-style tagging of pictures and websites by users. The movement is also exemplified by Yahoo Answers, which allows users to generate responses to others’ posted questions.
Schuyler Erle, coauthor of Mapping Hacks, believes that the personal touch is important for directed local searches. For example, users might want to know that the top-ranked pizza parlor in Lawrence, Kansas, occupies that position because it’s popular with the locals – not because the owner paid to advertise it prominently. “In order to come up with meaningful search results, you’re probably going to need human intervention to categorize and sift through it all,” Erle says.
In December 2005, the Oxford American Dictionary added the word “podcast” to its latest edition. The popularity of podcasts – audio shows distributed to computers and portable music players via the Internet – has made an impression on lexicographers – as it has on popular culture. But the wild success of podcasting has been driven by a technology that’s more fundamental than the audio medium itself: subscription-based “feeds” that allow people to sign up for regularly delivered electronic content, whether it’s a favorite blogger’s latest ruminations or the newest show from a podcasting personality.
Feeds, such as RSS (Really Simple Syndication), are available for news headlines, online calendar changes, video and still images, or anything that’s regularly updated on the Web. Although the number of feeds available today is impossible to catalog, FeedBurner, a Chicago-based outfit that manages feed publication information, currently tracks feeds for more than 150,000 publishers, from the average blogger to Reuters. That figure is up from about 30,000 at the beginning of the year. In January 2005, about 235,000 people subscribed to these feeds; by November, the number of subscribers had swelled to nearly 8 million.
Increasingly, these subscribers aren’t even aware that RSS is bringing them updated headlines through services like My Yahoo or My MSN – because the technology works so well behind the scenes that these providers haven’t bothered to single it out with a name. Similarly, “podcasting has been a huge trend in 2005, but a lot of people don’t realize that RSS is driving it,” says Eric Lunt, chief technology officer at FeedBurner. In fact, an October survey by Ipsos Insight, a marketing consultant, found that 27 percent of the U.S. population use RSS but are unaware of it, compared with just 4 percent who know what the term means. Whether or not users know the technical name for subscribable online media, though, 2005 was when “people recognized the value of the information coming to them on their own terms,” says Lunt.