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Beyond Google: Collective Searching

A new kind of search engine could make the act of Web searching more sociable.

At the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego this week, a new software application was introduced, called Boxxet (pronounced “box set”), which allows online interest groups to form by aggregating content from users, instead of the more traditional way of networking around a person or event.

The software is meant to build communities by allowing users to gather and rate search information. It operates on the assumption that in a group of 100 people, at least three will rate items for relevance. Boxxet won’t be available to the public for another couple of months, but free invitations to try it out are available on their website.

Conference organizer Tim O’Reilly, who cited Boxxet in his keynote address, says he’s big on the company because it solves a fundamental issue with social software. “The problem with social networks is they’re artificial – they aren’t ‘your’ network,” he says. “Boxxet is an infrastructure to let you develop your own social network.”

Social software has blossomed in the last few years, with blogging, social-networking sites like MySpace and LinkedIn, and the rise of user-driven content sites like Flickr. But, for the most part, the field is in an awkward, adolescent stage: self-conscious and prone to forming cliques. Furthermore, many users never contribute information to these communities. “Problem number one with social software is that people are lurkers,” says Boxxet’s founder, You Mon Tsang.

Boxxet software is designed to take into account that most people won’t contribute to its ratings section. Tsang uses the term “bionic software” to describe how social software can combine even limited amounts of human insight and preferences with software algorithms to generate “focused” communities.

Other than asking its users to register, Boxxet functions like a typical Web search tool. Type a term or phrase and it produces links to existing social networks created by Boxxet users that mention the term. The results are culled from blogs, news sites, photo sites, and lists of bookmarks that people choose to make public.

Once in a Boxxet, a user sees a page with “recent news and blogs,” including photos, as well as popular blogs on the topic, a search engine geared specifically to the topic, and a floating block of text (a “tagcloud”) linking to terms referenced on the page. In addition, there are places to submit bookmarks and other related links, as well as links for related merchandise.

The first time users visit a Boxxet, each link on the results page will include a chance to rate the content, starting with the question “Is this relevant to [your topic search]?” The user can then click “Yes,” “No,” or “Skip.”

Every link includes a Like/Dislike rating button and a series of possible reasons why. For instance, you might rate something negatively because it is irrelevant, out of date, spam – or just because you didn’t care for it. The application scores each rating and adapts its searches accordingly. (If there are no results, the site will soon offer people the ability to create their own Boxxets.)

The Boxxet engine, which is built around standard software, such as MySQL and JavaScript, is driven by “thousands” of variables, according to Tsang, which he and his co-founder developed. The primary technology they used for categorizing searches is “support vectors,” which break text apart to analyze its patterns, Tsang says.

In the future, Boxxet will also learn how to make best-of lists. For instance, if you rated a list of 30 movies, it would return recommendations based on ratings by others who’ve rated at least some of the same movies. Or the feature could be used to parse news sites and bring back the best stories and blogs on a topic.

On a practical level, Boxxet is more like a search engine than a social network. It’s a concept that might appeal to people who’re tired of trying to figure out how to refine searches on sites like Google. But it could also have some stiff competition from Microsoft, which just announced MSN Macros, a collection of search engines geared toward specific subjects.

“You can now author your own search engine and put it on your website,” says Christopher Payne, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of MSN Search. The company has introduced 43 “search macros” this week, and it plans to introduce many more over the coming months, in addition to those created by users.

For that matter, Technorati is also aggregating more types of content, notes Clay Shirky, an assistant teacher of telecommunications at New York University and long-time observer of social software. He says aggregation engines like Boxxet are needed on the Web. “Right now, search means you pull things out of context, which can demean their value. Anybody who can figure out how to aggregate things without losing context will have a very high-leverage application.”

For his part, while Tsang thinks Boxxet’s ability to let users drive what it does will make it the right product, he acknowledges that “we have to prove that people will come, that there’s something here.”

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