Middlespot May Hit Search Sweet Spot

Many of us do just fine online with standard search engines, but what if you’re working on a project or engaging in a hobby that calls for prolonged research? You can set up a folder in your browser with project-related links, but that solution has its own issues. Middlespot offers a potentially useful alternative.

It took me a little while to get around to reviewing Middlespot, but no matter; Scott Brownlee, one of the three guys involved in this Canadian start-up, was nice enough to answer my questions, graciously accept my feedback, and otherwise put a good face on the company. The name "Middlespot" is based on the idea that there is "a space to be filled after the results are delivered from a major search engine," according to Brownlee. It seems as if they’re not so much interested in building the next Google killer as they are in creating the tools that will make managing your search results, from Google or them, more effective.

It’s amazing how much Web 2.0 technology they’ve been able to build into something that feels somewhat like a desktop application, albeit one that operates entirely within your browser. One thing I’d like to note here, before diving completely into the review, is that you can get Middlespot’s full functionality without having to register or log in. I don’t mind this use of cookies; it makes my life a little easier.

As Brownlee explained, "We are leveraging as much of the new web 2.0 technology out there (cloud computing, third party APIs, etc) as we can because a lot of other companies are doing parts that can be effectively incorporated into our app. We built middlespot entirely out of JavaScript and technologies already built into your browser (because we don’t like to limit people by forcing them to download plug-ins). We also tried to avoid the requirement to login to do your search (your privacy and what you search for shouldn’t be something we need to capture)."

{mospagebreak title=What is it Already?}

So what exactly is Middlespot? Brownlee offered long and short versions of how his company’s visual search interface works. He said that it "allows a user to see results on an infinitely zoomable, pannable grid that can be saved and shared with friends." That’s the short version; the longer version homes in on Middlespot’s audience. It’s for "those who spend more than 1 minute in researching or looking something up. People who want to really interrogate a lot of results with a lot of varying queries, then want to collect results that are relevant (for people who search over multiple sessions over multiple days). We also want to make it easy for these deep researchers to share what they have found. Like Delicious, but applying that concept to the effort of search."

Judging from the references to Middlespot that I found in a Google search, the librarians have already discovered it; that’s certainly a plus in my book. Here’s a screen shot of the home page, but I assure you it doesn’t do the search engine’s potential justice:

Before I continue, I’d like to add that Middlespot offers a slide show tutorial. That may seem like a relatively "low tech" approach when they could have done a video or something equally flashy, but I honestly can’t fault it. It works, and even an older system (such as mine) had no problem with it – and I highly approve of things that work. Brownlee noted that the company is working on additional tutorials and demos (including a video) to help show the depth of the service. But the proof is in the pudding, so let’s get to our first search.

{mospagebreak title=Searching With Middlespot}

I’ve been intrigued by the steampunk subculture and steampunk costumes lately, so I figure that’s as good a place to start as any. Many costumers will spend months putting together just the right look. So what does Middlespot turn up for a search on steampunk?

Well, the first thing I noticed about doing my search is that the site is very slow. No, I mean VERY slow. Middlespot may have been having problems at their end (I checked my end and everything was working), or it may be the nature of the beast. You see, Middlespot doesn’t just return links. It’s a visual search engine. In this case, that means it also returns screen shots. And by default, it returns 2.5 times as many results on its first page as the major search engines; add in that many screen shots, and you can see why it would take a while to load. Let me show you:

On the left side you see the familiar list of links that you’ll find in any search engine, with some of its material rearranged. The link is at the end of each entry; it starts with the item’s title and includes a blurb from the page, with your search term in bold. To the right, however, are screen shots from each page.

You probably noticed the orange rectangles. They match up the link with the screen shot, so you get a preview of where you want to go. You can change the item that is highlighted by either hovering over a new screen shot or clicking on the general area of the text related to the link. This may be why Middlespot puts the links at the bottom (rather than the top) of each entry on the left, in fact – to avoid having users unintentionally click away from the site. (You do have to click twice on links and/or screen shots to go to search results, however). I did find that being able to change the screen shot just by hovering over a new one was a bit distracting; it caused the highlighted shot to change more quickly and often than I’d intended. Regaining the right shot was no big deal, however.

By default, Middlespot returns 25 results per page, but you can increase that to 50. You probably noticed that the screen shots seem to scroll off the right side of the screen. Do you find that distracting? It’s fixable. If you look near the top left of the screen shot plane, you will notice a control that looks like this:

The slider with the plus and minus signs controls the size of the screen shots. You can make them small enough for you to take in all 25 at a glance. The arrows, meanwhile, provide you with another way to navigate through the images. As you would expect, each time you move to a different image, the focus of the orange rectangle on both sides (link and screen shot) changes appropriately.

By the way, if you get stuck, I strongly suggest clicking on the "tips" link that you’ll find at the upper right of each pane. It shows you how to manipulate and navigate through the interface if you don’t like the default presentation. I’ll talk more about the help screens in the second part of this review.

{mospagebreak title=Creating a Workpad}

At the bottom of the screen you’ll find something labeled "my workpads." You’ll also find three words: "new," "backup," and "tips." "New" creates a new workpad, so you can have more than one. "Backup" creates a backup to your computer, and "tips" provides helpful hints. But let’s say that I want to start a workpad. To choose a particular site to put in my workpad, I need only click the "save to workpad" part of the orange rectangle. It takes a minute, but steampunk god Jake Von Slatt’s site in my workpad looks like this:

Actually, it looks a lot better than that, but I had to shrink this section by more than half to get my screen shot of the pane to fit. Don’t worry, however, because I’m going to cover all of the options.

Starting from all the way at the left, there is "rename." Clicking that option lets me give my current workpad a name. I got a pop-up window with a blank text box, which I decided to fill with something appropriate:

"Comment" lets you add a comment to your workpad. Interestingly, the text box that came up had a space both for the author of the comment and the comment itself.

"Clear" lets you clear all of the items in your workpad. That can be useful if you’ve decided your current round of research hasn’t been helpful. You can delete individual items from your workpad by hovering over the upper left corner of the screen shot until you see a yellow "M," which will quickly be replaced with a small box that gives you the option to "comment" or "delete." Making a comment here is individual to that particular screen shot. Save the comment, and the next time you hover over it, it will show up as a tool tip.

"Add URL" lets you add a custom URL to your workpad. When you add the URL, Middlespot takes a few seconds to add a thumbnail for the item to your workpad. Oh, and in case I didn’t mention, you can go directly to the site in each thumbnail from your workpad; Middlespot opens a new browser for the item, which makes sense if you like to spread out with your research and still see everything.

That’s all I have room for in this part. You’ll want to come back next week for the conclusion. It’s where I explain how to share your workpad, show you some other useful tools on the site, and contemplate Middlespot’s future. See you then!

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