It's all about who you know...
Finally, personalized search seems to have arrived. It's been long promised as an important next step for increased relevancy. Now, it comes not from Google or Yahoo, but instead from tiny eurekster, which launched to the general public last week. Earlier, a beta site involved only a few hundred people.
Personalized search? The concept is by knowing some things about you, a search engine might refine your results to make them more relevant. A teenager searching for music might get different matches than a senior citizen. A man looking for flowers might see different listings than a woman.
Eurekster's twist is to provide personalized results based on not who you are but who you know. Friends, colleagues, anyone in your eurekster social network influences the results you see.
"Word of mouth is the most common way we filter information in real life, and eurekster amplifies this everyday process to deliver search results that matter most to users and their friends and contacts," said Grant Ryan, eurekster's CEO.
Take a search for "thunderbirds," the TV show I loved as a kid and my children now enjoy on DVD. Without refinement, eurekster returns a variety of results, leading with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds Web site.
Nothing wrong with the USAF site coming up first. It's certainly relevant. But I'm thinking of the sci-fi series. Scrolling down, I find the official site for the show listed in position three. By clicking, my interest is registered by eurekster.
If a friend does the same search, she'll see results based on my actions. The TV show site moves to position one, with a little eurekster "e" icon next to it. This alerts her someone in her network likes the site. As most of my friends are into sci-fi, the results will probably feel more relevant.
The potential of using friends or colleagues is enormous. Imagine eurekster used by all employees at a medical research firm, where many may conduct similar queries. With eurekster, all employees can link and benefit from searches and selections made by colleagues.
Libraries are another type of institution that might latch on to the concept. Eurekster would allow librarians to collaborate invisibly and share what they deem to be the best information.
There are downsides. Not all my friends share my interests. As my social network grows -- my friends invite their friends, and so on -- commonalities are diluted.
Some categorization will almost certainly be necessary. I can imagine dividing my network into subgroups. All my colleagues who cover search would be in one group, fellow youth group volunteers in another, friends in California in yet another, and friends in the U.K. in a fourth. I might want to share and refine search in some way for a particular group or commonality.
Such functionality will come in the next few months, eurekster says. So will the ability to group contacts by interests, such as sports or business. That way, you'll get a sense of what's hot with those interested particular subjects. "You can see what the search results are like with different hats on and do that different categorization," Ryan said.
Sharing Searches, Sites
Eurekster does more than refine results. It can also show you what others in your network are looking for. When I search "thunderbirds," those in my network see that query listed in the "your friends recent searches" area on the eurekster results page.
This can be pretty cool. When I saw "firewire backups on sale" in that area, I knew one of my friends needed a FireWire backup solution. I'd just bought a similar solution. So I clicked the envelope icon next to the query. This let me email the person to say I have info he might be interested in.
My network is incredibly small -- all of three people right now. I had a pretty good idea who did the search, but I wanted to test the functionality. The idea behind it is somewhat the opposite of what I did: If you see a search someone's done, you can get in touch with that person to discover what she's found.
The email feature only appears for those in your direct or extended networks (in the latter, other networks linked to yours by a common contact). Don't want email? Opt out, using account preferences.
I thought it might be useful to have an option where you can choose to let anyone email you, even if that person isn't part of your network. Spotting common queries could be a great way to build new relationships. That could come, but eurekster is keeping things limited for now.
"As always, when you start a service, you try to set the default to what you think people would like," Ryan said.
What your friends look for is supposed to help more directly, by influencing the actual listings you see when you search for the same thing. You needn't email for help. Just search for the same thing you've seen someone else look for. Any site that person likes (determined by eurekster criteria) is flagged with that "e" icon.
Eurekster will also display "your friends recent sites," which keeps track of top queries and sites visited by network members.
I love my friends, but I don't want them to see everything I search for. In a small network like mine, it's pretty easy to guess who may have searched for something.
Eurekster makes a "private search" possible with a check-box option. Click, and your search will not be shared. Should you forget to click, you can click and remove searches later.
Both opt-out features are welcome, but I'd prefer all searches be private by default. The downside is if people don't remember to share searches when appropriate, the network doesn't function as it should. By making all searches public by default, people will inevitably share what they didn't intend to.
Your name is never associated with a query or visited site. And the larger your network, the more anonymous you become. Guessing who did a particular search or visited a particular site is harder in a network of 30 than one of 3. A porn filter prevents those queries from displaying, as another bit of protection.
Peer privacy aside, what about privacy in general? Yes, you're issued a cookie with a unique user ID, an issue some have had with other search engines, such as Google. Unlike Google and other major engines, the cookie doesn't last long. It expires after a year if you don't revisit eurekster.
Of course, being cookied with a unique ID or for a long time isn't necessarily a problem (an earlier series covers this in depth). Instead, eurekster raises an entirely different issue also addressed in the piece: you're a known, registered individual (not an anonymous ID) and linked to particular searches. So it's potentially much easier for your data to be abused.
The how eurekster works page provides some privacy assurances. The company says it won't reveal who conducted a particular search or visited a particular site. I suspect it would, if legally compelled. The policy doesn't state how long searches are retained. Some, such as Google Watch and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), believe such data should be destroyed on a regular basis.
Anyone with serious privacy concerns may shy away from the service, as eurekster recognizes. To work properly, it must monitor what you search for and visit. The company hopes a promise of anonymity and extra privacy tools will satisfy most concerns.
"To do personalization, we have to have some information, and we give you the ability to delete that information to make it private. In the future, we will give users even more tools by which to further control their data," Ryan said.
Replacement or Enhancement?
Eurekster isn't a replacement for Google, Inktomi, or other search engines that crawl the Web. Eurekster has no listings of its own; it refines others' results.
When you search on eurekster, listings are from Yahoo-owned AlltheWeb.com. Eurekster alters results depending on your social network's choices.
AlltheWeb's used because the company has an agreement to use the listings (and carry Yahoo-owned Overture paid listings under a Sponsored Search Results heading). Eurekster could strike deals with other companies and do the same on their own sites.
"This doesn't replace the algorithmic [crawler-based] results," Ryan said. "We want to partner with anyone and everyone. We see it as an additional layer that adds value."
The company says some search companies have expressed interest, though it won't name names. Eurekster's sister company, SLI Systems, has relationships with smaller search companies, such as Comet Systems, Excite Networks, and CNET's Search.com, to provide related searches technology. Perhaps we'll see movement with these partners first.
Eurekster views its system as something that may be of interest to social network sites such as LinkedIn, Friendster, Tribe, and Ryze. These let you meet people based on who you already know and recently have gained much attention.
"There's lots of people who want to grow their own networks, so we're kind of network agnostic," Ryan said. "We're happy to work with anyone's private network."
Will Personalization Fly?
Tiny eurekster has a wealth of search refinement experience. GlobalBrain, a promising search technology in 1998, was founded by brothers Grant and Shaun Ryan. Snap.com (later called NBCi.com) bought the company but failed to move it forward in the wake of the dot-com crash. The Ryans repurchased GlobalBrain's technology and founded SLI Systems. SLI Systems has so far provided related search functionality to a number of minor search sites. SLI is a eurkster cofounder (the other is social networking company RealContacts, also founded by the Ryans).
Will the Ryans' second time out be lucky? That remains to be seen. Unlike 1999, the majors have a real interest in personalized search.
Google, Yahoo, and AOL have all publicly stated they view personalization as a vital step forward (Google owns at least two companies, Kaltix and Outride, involved with personalization and is working on a social network, orkut, currently in limited release). We'll likely see others follow eurekster's lead. Privacy issues and user resistance will remain, but the will exists to find solutions.
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