In search of relevance

I'm not enough of a sociologist to tell you if it's a human trait or just an American one, but in the States we always seem to be waiting for the knight in shining armor to save us, and that's also true in the wireless world.

Here it is, the year 2000, and I'm still waiting for the Information Age.

"Information" to me implies knowledge and even wisdom. But here I sit, awash in spam, annoying paper clip assistants, and impossibly arcane Web sites.

We're all swimming in a sea of data, searching for relevant information. It's no real surprise, then, that we're also entering the Renaissance of the Search Engine.

Ask Jeeves has a cartoon butler, a mention in Bob Metcalfe's column, and a lot of speculation about whether they'll be a part of the dot-com herd headed to hamburger factory.

The other week, I mentioned Infrasearch, based on Gnutella. It's the best example of the peer-to-peer search engine approach, a novel idea we'll see more of soon.

Recently I sat down with Nick Halsey of Searchbutton.com. Searchbutton.com is selling search services via an ASP (application service provider) model.

Sign up for Searchbutton.com and they crawl your site and do the indexing in a centralised database. It's a pay-as-you-go model, with pricing based on the frequency of indexing and number of pages on a site.

They even offer a freebie option for the cash impaired: If you have less than a thousand pages, they'll index you once a week.

Two things about Searchbutton.com's model caught my attention: reporting and "ring of site" searches.

Searchbutton.com provides reporting services on search engine usage -- it's like reading your customers' minds, Halsey says.

Search engines are a necessary evil; every time you use a search engine, it's an admission of how overwhelmingly unfriendly most of the Web is.

But given that there's no good solution to the "too much data" problem, a search engine is critical. Searchbutton.com gives you a window into the customer's soul. And, hey, because Searchbutton is already crawling your site, I'm sure plenty of other reporting services will be available soon enough.

Would you go to a doctor who offered only two options: aspirin or brain surgery? That's the problem with many site searches: They offer you the option of "search this site or search the Web." Is there an in-between?

Searchbutton.com allows searches across multiple sites. Of course, they all have to use Searchbutton.com, but it's a good idea as we look for more relevant answers to our search requests.

Which brings us to Google, the hottest engine out there. Geeks everywhere have sung its praises for almost two years, and for good reason: It's got a simple interface and the results are awesome.

Google rates sites based on how frequently someone links to a page -- the more links, the more relevant. Essentially, it harnesses human judgment. I'd like to see this idea extended with a Google plug-in that can tell me, from any page I visit on the Internet, which pages are most frequently viewed next.

In a measure of Google influence, AltaVista recently debuted Raging Search (www.raging.com), a nonportal, back-to-the-mid-90s interface for AltaVista. Raging looks a lot like Google; maybe AltaVista noticed that Yahoo recently went to Google for its search engine needs.

Taming the data beast with search engines is one approach, but Microsoft is attacking the problem from the other side. As part of the Microsoft.NET uber-strategy, the Attentional User Interface promises to make life simple by offering a handy computer assistant to help filter messages, schedule appointments, and whatnot.

Did the mention of a Microsoft electronic assistant send shivers down your spine? Is the grisly corpse of MS Bob being exhumed? Not exactly -- the MS Office Paper Clip was the first example of the technology, although it was badly implemented, according to Eric Horvitz, head of the project. I'd say something snarky, but the Paper Clip really speaks for itself.

To be fair, at least MS has the right idea; we desperately need tools to manage data and turn it into information. So I'll reserve judgment until the product is actually available.

Microsoft hopes the technology will be in products this year. And if there's one thing you can take to the bank, it's a Microsoft shipping date ... right?

Send Sean Dugan. It will not be filtered by the Paper Clip, Bob, or any other cartoon characters. Dugan is senior research editor at InfoWorld.

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