Searching with Context

I’ll admit it. I don’t really understand the dark, mysterious, and intricate workings of search engines.

I fully appreciate their ability to grant me an infinite supply of entertainment when I type in “lolcatz” but, beyond that, I’ve never cared to learn how they perform their voodoo magic.

However, after reading the Nielson and Johnson articles for this week, one of the first things that popped into my head was the idea of a community-driven search engine.

Johnson (2010) talked a bit about how important links are becoming. He mentioned that they have:

value for consumers searching for information, value for advertisers trying to share their messages with consumers searching for related topics, value for content creators who want an audience. And of course, value to the entity that serves as the middleman between all those different groups. This is in part what Jeff Jarvis has called the ‘link economy,’ but as Jarvis has himself observed, it is not just a matter of links. What is crucial to this system is that text can be easily moved and re-contextualized and analyzed, sometimes by humans and sometimes by machines. (para. 13).

However, it seems as though search engines are largely composed through automated processes. Barker and Kupersmith (2010) stated that:

search engine databases are selected and built by computer robot programs called spiders. These ‘crawl’ the web, finding pages for potential inclusion by following the links in the pages they already have in their database. They cannot use imagination or enter terms in search boxes that they find on the web. (para. 6).

As such, these programs that so many people depend upon daily seem to have little input from their users.

Social media is everywhere these days. Facebook has built-in integration with many services on the Internet, allowing users to easily share links, provide comments and give feedback to those on their networks. Perhaps, taken a step further, this type of interface could be applied with search engine results on a global scale. Allowing users to provide feedback on the accuracy or usefulness of the links provided in a given search could aid significantly in increasing relevant search results.

This sort of idea has been explored before. Google Image Labeler, a “game” where users compete to try to label photos with relevant descriptions, was designed with the idea of generating better image search results. Joel (2007) said that:

Google can call them ‘labels’ but what they are actually asking their users to do is help them to ‘tag’ images. Tagging images will prime us for the Semantic Web (some people call this Web 3.0). The more we tag items (images, audio, text, video, etc_) the more we are helping to organize the Web based off of non-computer algorithms. (para. 7).

No offense to all the computer algorithms out there (who will probably boycott adding this page to any search engines), but I think that last point is pretty important. By allowing a sort of scoring system on links as pertaining to certain keyword searches, users could identify which links are most pertinent to their purposes based on the opinions of other users who performed similar searches.

Nielsen (2010) mentioned how well the scoring system worked with the Mathworks competition. He reported that:

there is an absolute, objective measure of success that’s immediately available – the score. The score acts as a signal telling every competitor where the best ideas are. This helps the community aggregate all the best ideas into a fantastic final product. (para. 5).

A search engine that has been vetted in a similar fashion, by the people actually looking over a site and determining its usefulness, could deliver a similarly polished result.

According to Bell (2010), Google:

plans to introduce social-networking elements this fall in ‘layers’ instead of a full-on product that has been called Google Me. (para. 1).

With such an infrastructure in place, a search-engine that builds upon the databases collected by our friendly, neighborhood spider-algorithms using user-generated feedback doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

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11 Responses to Searching with Context

  1. The Wikimedia foundation tried to do something like community-based search a few years ago:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikia_Search

    They eventually killed off their attempt, but maybe someone will come up with a better way of doing this. It’s a nice idea.

  2. aflaten says:

    Ah, that’s a real shame. It sounds like they were doing well with the concept, they just didn’t have the traffic.

    I suppose the search engine market doesn’t have a whole lot of space for newcomers. Even Microsoft can’t seem to make much of a dent in Google’s empire. Perhaps we’ll just have to wait and see if Google will try dabbling in these sorts of ideas some more.

    In any event, thanks for letting me know about Wikia Search. I can’t say I’m shocked that this concept has been explored before, but it’s always nice to have some verification.

  3. Xuerui says:

    I am often amazed by the power of search engine. Reading your blog post, I just realized that our blogs for this class is also a type of “link”. It provides a convenient way for the whole class to talk about something and comment on each other’s work. It is not only an inside link for our class, but also for people having Internet access to it, including advertisers. Some companies may pay attention to our blogs if their names are linked in the blog. Of course, in this process, the search engine giant “Google” plays the role of middleman.

  4. Reading your post reminded me a little bit about the flesh sourcing we talked about in class a couple of weeks ago. It’s not the same idea, but similar, and I feel that yours would be more pertinent to me. I believe there is only so far algorithms can go. Sooner or later there is always going to be some human element that cannot be replicated, like in the difficulty of making a computer that can consistently outperform humans in chess and other games of strategy. Also, I don’t think the algorithms can factor in spite over your comments being as Skynet is still a few years off. lol

  5. Sijia says:

    As much as I appreciate the rating system, I don’t know if it’s good enough for evaluating policies. I mean, it works pretty well in many online aspects. I always look at the rating of a product before purchasing, and I always do the same thing before downloading software. But for a tangible product, people kind of agree on what is good and what is bad. However, people’s idea towards a policy can be totally opposite.

    So, I guess rating system can be incorporated as a part of the whole evaluating system of any open source, but never as the only crierion.

  6. fanninchen says:

    Sharing information, duplicate, de-contextualize, and re-contextualize is the way how internet users produce ideas and thoughts. I’ve wondered how does google improve their image searching, since there is no text included. As I play with it, I found out that the scoring system is base on “competition.” Not only competing with the definition, also the quantity of your labels and how fast you can tag them.

  7. chentingchen says:

    You mentioned that “no offense to all the computer algorithms out there who will probably boycott adding this page to any search engines” makes me think about the privicy thing we had discussed in class talking about hate speech. It seems that there is no way to see personal blog as a privicy place since the development of search engine. Text is completely open source for people. Now with the label system, I am curious that the internet will become much deliberative or much chaotic.

  8. francescalyn says:

    Wow I had never heard of the phrase “semantic web” before this post. I am interested in studying visual culture so this is really an interesting area for me. I also remember playing with Google Image Labeler. Have you heard of Idee? They are a company specializing in image search technologies. I think they are doing really interesting work.

    http://labs.ideeinc.com/

  9. Your musings here made me recall that I recently saw this about Google search vs. social media:

    Facebook Driving More Traffic Than Google

    http://gigaom.com/2010/02/15/facebook-driving-more-traffic-than-google/

    • aflaten says:

      I prefer to think of them more as “preposterous ponderings” rather than “musings,” but that’s just because I enjoy making up words.

      Through the research I’ve looked at (how weird is it that I can say things like this?), information sharing is one of the strongest motivations for social network usage. It looks like all that link-tossing is adding up!

      Possibly the most surprising thing from that article is the mention that Google fell behind Ebay. I have to say, I never think of Ebay anymore as a powerful web presence. But apparently it is still quite the force.

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