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As Google’s stock price can attest, good search engines are what make the Internet useful and entertaining. But in virtual worlds, which are made up of not text but 3-D renderings of people, places, and objects, the search problem is harder. Residents of Linden Lab’s Second Life have long been able to perform large, general searches–for a listing of a Spanish-language event, for example, or for the location of a particular group. But while it was possible, with a little effort, to find a shoe store, there was no good way to locate a pair of red shoes. Since much of the entertainment value of virtual worlds lies in creating objects and trading them, that’s been a frustrating limitation. But Linden Lab recently released a new search tool that begins to address the problem.

Building on a commercially available platform from Google, the new tool gives Second Life residents search results ranked by relevance, rather than ordered alphabetically or according to how much traffic they generate, as was previously the case. Jeska Dzwigalski, who is in charge of community and product development at Linden Lab, explains that the tool also allows residents to search much more specifically. In addition to being able to search for objects, residents can now look for information–about hobbies, for example–in each other’s profiles. Dzwigalski says she expects that being able to search profile information will improve Second Life’s social features.

The algorithm behind the new Second Life search tool will resemble Google’s: found objects will be ranked according to how well the data used to describe them match the search terms entered, how close multiple words are to each other, and how popular the objects seem to be, based on the frequency of references to their locations. Like the existing search tool, the new one will allow people to select whether or not they want to include mature content in their searches. The current release, Dzwigalski says, lets Second Life subscribers decide which of their elements they want the search engine to index, so that they will have a chance to determine their desired level of privacy. “The new search tool allows people to search more things and better describe them,” she says.

Linden Lab’s new search tool for Second Life, shown above, goes beyond the alphabetic and traffic-based ranking systems that were previously available; instead, the tool sorts results by relevance. Users can decide whether or not to receive results that include mature content.
Credit: Linden Lab

Before Linden Lab announced its new tool, third-party companies, such as Electric Sheep, were working on their own to improve search in Second Life and other virtual worlds. “The search capability in the worlds has been historically quite basic,” says Giff Constable, who leads the Electric Sheep’s software business unit. Constable says that his company was sending bots into Second Life to pick up virtual objects and extract data from them in order to compile search results. “The analogy would be to Alta Vista in the early days of the Web, before Google came around and became able to rank things for popularity,” Constable says. He adds that his company hopes to take advantage of the new search tool from Linden Lab and will focus on providing additional tools for social networking and e-commerce.

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Credit: Search box, Linden Lab; composite image, Technology Review

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