Searchles: The Next Generation of Search?

Online companies that include user-generated content as a huge part of their business model have been around for a few years now. This model is even being used with search engines, with del.icio.us as the most prominent example. But there’s a new search engine that takes that model even further, and it’s definitely worth a look.

It’s called “Searchles,” a mashup of the words “search” and “circles,” and it’s pronounced “circles.” It’s because the three-month-old search engine, an offshoot of Dumbfind, emphasizes circles of friends to make it work. “You can think of it as a cross between MySpace and a social bookmarking site like del.icio.us or Furl,” explained Dumbfind spokesman Eric Young. “It’s all about connecting to your friends and sharing information and making everything easily searchable.”

Users of Searchles take advantage of a double box system that lets them explore their topic by keyword, tag, or both. If you are a registered user, you can submit pages and sites to the search engine, and use tags to distinguish them and help you find them again. So far, so good; it doesn’t sound that much different from del.icio.us, or any other Web 2.0 site that uses tags or votes or whatever to let its community decide what is relevant.

The key difference is in the amount of fine-grained control in the hands of users. With many social search sites, when you search tags or keywords, you’re searching everyone’s tags. How do you know that those tags are reliable? For example, let’s say that you’re an advanced guitar player and you’re interested in sites to help you with your music. Think about all the beginning guitar players out there. The sites they tag as most relevant for guitar are not going to be nearly as relevant to you, because you’re more advanced than they are, so you already know a lot of that stuff.

Searchles has an answer for that. Once you’re a registered user, you can search in various “circles.” You can search everywhere; that’s the default. Or you can search through only the sites you’ve posted. You can search through sites that have been submitted by your friends. You can search through sites submitted by various groups you’ve joined. You can search through sites submitted by friends of friends. And you can search through sites submitted by “your fans” – people who admire you. (I have to wonder if that particular feature redefines the term “ego-scanning”).

Before actually trying out the search engine, I thought I’d poke around for a bit and see what I turned up. Groups seem to be an important part of Searchles, so I clicked on a link labeled “Groups” and was rewarded with seven pages of them, in no particular order. They were as specific as ones for heart surgeons and as random as one called “science stuff.” There’s a respectable number of groups related to programming, some that focus on history, and, not surprisingly, a few dedicated to searching and to Web 2.0. I found a few that looked like the kinds of groups I might want to join, so I clicked on their links.

Here’s a screen shot for the group labeled “technology:”

 

Sorry for the blurriness. Anyway, on the left hand side you can see the handle of the group’s owner and a list of group members. In the center you see recent posts, with links to each post; some are news stories, while others are event announcements. That little box to the right of each post tells you what tags they’ve been given (up to a certain number; if it has a lot of tags it lists the first few and mentions how many more there are). It also gives you options to save it, comment, on it, and share it, among others (which you can only do if you’re a registered member of Searchles, of course).

Well, at that point I decided I really should register to test it out. Registration is easy; the search engine just wants your email address, your online handle, and your password (entered twice to confirm). You also have to agree with Searchles’ Terms of Use. These are pretty vanilla. Among other things, Searchles does indicate that it respects copyright, and includes an address to email if you feel yours has been violated.

After you register, Searchles wants you to add a “bookmarklet” to your browser to make it easier for you to submit pages to the community where you can “tag it, describe it, share it, and post it to groups.” You can just click past that point. Here’s the plain page I got for myself after registering:

 

On the left are spots for related people and related groups. On the right are columns for my posts, my friends, my groups, my friends’ friends, and my fans, as well as related tags. The middle area is for keeping track of my posts. Near the top are links that let me edit a “profile” and upload a picture. I put the profile in quotes because when I clicked on it, I noticed that there were places for only first and last name, zip code, email address (already filled in), location, slogan, and display name.

When you do get around to filling in the spots on the right, you might want to be careful. I clicked on one user’s name and could easily go to whatever he had listed under his posts, friends, groups, etc. I honestly haven’t decided whether that’s a bug or a feature.

You don’t actually need the bookmarklet to submit a link. I didn’t install it because I personally don’t like installing anything extra in my browser that I don’t have to. If you don’t install it and want to submit something, you do have to open a second browser. In this case, just go to Searchles’ home page, log in, click on “post a link,” and you’ll get a screen like this (which I’ve already filled in):

 

It asks you for the URL, title, tags for the page, and a description. The center box asks whether you want to add this post to any groups. You can also (on the far right) send the post to friends. Right after I submitted the link, I did a search on one of the tags I used for the site, and was delighted to see that it turned up at the top of the results. Not only that, but the link and description turned up on Searchles’ home page (and it stayed there until more recent links bumped it off).

As you would expect, the site in general is set up to reward activity with recognition. The top ten most active posters and the top 20 most active groups show up on the home page. So does every new link that’s added to the site. Popular tags also show up on the home page.

Here’s something that Searchles mentions right on its home page that’s very cool for folks who like video. Whenever you submit a YouTube or Google Video, it is automatically integrated into the search results. I gave it a try, but all I can say is that I was really glad that the site allows you to edit links after you submit them! It was a bit of a struggle.

I shouldn’t put down Searchles for my own uncertainties with new technologies. And to be honest, it’s a very promising social search engine, especially for being in existence only three months. But there were some things I really would have liked to have seen that it either doesn’t have or weren’t obvious.

For openers, an on-site tutorial that takes you through everything you can do would have been nice. I know the company posted a tutorial on YouTube, but when I checked that out, there didn’t seem to be an audio track; just showing you with the visuals isn’t enough (and I did check my equipment to make sure it wasn’t just me). I was able to figure out how to add friends and several other things, thanks to links in the appropriate places, but I’m the sort of person that likes to RTFM. Fortunately, when you click help, the site takes you to a page that includes links to several categories, such as FAQ, bookmarklet, user questions, groups, and tags, and that really is helpful.

I didn’t see any way that you could designate certain links as private (not shared by the community). You could choose whether or not to share them with any groups you happened to join. I can understand the reasoning behind that, but I could certainly see people wanting to keep certain links private or share them with only a few people.

This point leads to another question about information. There also doesn’t seem to be any way for you to keep any part of your profile private. People can search for you, find out who your friends and groups are, all of the links you have added, and so on. This isn’t a bad thing, as long as users don’t mind (and it probably explains why Searchles asks for so little information in the profile).

By the way, when it comes to making friends or joining groups, people can do that completely without your knowledge — though you do receive an email letting you know that someone has added you as a friend. I told our CTO Rich Smith about Searchles, and he tried it out. I was able to make him one of my friends easily once I saw his handle; I don’t know if he received an email when I added him, but I received one when he added me. (I didn’t know about it right away because the email I used is heavily spam-protected). You can send people messages through the site itself pretty easily, which is a nice touch. Joining a group is just as easy as making friends; just find the group you want to join, and there’s a link at the top labeled “join this group.” Click it, and you’re a member.

Groups have owners (the person who created the group in the first place). I don’t know if the owner gets a message when someone joins the group, but it seems to me that this would be common courtesy – or maybe I’m just old-fashioned. Truthfully, most of the items I’m pointing out could be seen as positives just as easily as negatives; I freely admit I’m hypersensitive when it comes to issues of online privacy.

On the other hand, I think it would be kind of neat if Searchles had an actual forum. Groups form communities of sorts; there are home pages for groups just as there are for individuals. And of course you can send people messages. But forums allow for more interaction, and, I think, more of a feeling of community.

Having said all of that, I’d like to add one more thing. With Google’s recent purchase of YouTube, I think that, if the search leader is smart, its next major purchase will be a social search engine like del.icio.us. And Searchles bears watching. With its fine-grained user control, relatively easy-to-use interface, and double search box approach, it offers some unique features. Give it another six months to a year, and I expect we’ll be hearing a lot more about it.

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