U Rank: Microsoft Discovers Social Search

Everybody wonders what’s bubbling away in Google Labs, to the point that we sometimes forget that other major search companies boast their own research and development departments. To wit, Microsoft Research began offering its own variation of social search in October 2008. Dubbed U Rank, it’s an interesting experiment.

So what exactly is U Rank? The short version, from the service’s home page, states that “U Rank is a search engine that allows people to organize, edit and annotate search results, as well as share information with others.” It’s a research prototype, so it’s not available on the main Live Search page; indeed, it may never be. The software giant says the project will help it learn more about how people use these kinds of technologies. One can only hope the information will help the company pull itself out of its distant third position in the search engine market.

The project features its own blog, of course, open to any interested readers. If you want to try out U Rank itself, however, you must register. You either need to already have a Windows Live ID or not mind creating one. I thought I didn’t have a Windows Live ID, but suspected I might have created one and forgotten about it. As it turned out, I did; when I tried signing in using my (non-Hotmail) e-mail address and one of my standard passwords, U Rank took me to a window that said “We’re sorry. Urank is only accessible to US users right now. We’re working on this…”

I can’t fault Microsoft for this. When I emailed one of the people handling the project (their email addresses are easy to find, because they’re looking for feedback), he explained the issue. They weren’t yet tracking IP addresses at the time I did this review, and I didn’t have my country listed in my Windows Live ID profile. Adding it fixed the issue. Kudos to Microsoft and those involved with this project, by the way; I heard back from them very quickly (within half an hour).

So after I got that straightened out and was able to get to U Rank, this is what I saw: 

 

I know, the image didn’t shrink very well. But just below the search box you may have noticed a list of people that are described as “people you may know,” while next to the search itself I’m given the option of clicking to search without sharing (sharing is on by default). Near the top, I can click to see such things as my friends, history, and settings; I can also sign out. And oh yes, in the upper left hand corner I can also invite a friend to join U Rank.

Let me start by searching for “SEO resources.” Take a look at the options I get when I hover over one of the results:


I can take the particular result and move it (up or down, though presumably not up if it’s the first result), add a note to it, delete it from the results, or copy it to another search. What does this mean? Well, I tried it out. Click on the "copy me" option next to a particular result and you get a text box below the result. In this case, I tried adding seobook.com to the search “Aaron Wall’s site.” It took a while to save, but once it did, I did a search on “Aaron Wall’s site,” and sure enough, it was right at the top:


As you can see, the result has a little yellow rectangle next to it highlighting that I moved it up. This may seem like a silly example, but I think you can see the potential there. The people working on U Rank gave examples that included results which had been moved up for such searches as “upcoming conferences” and “books I want to read.”

Before I show you what the other items in the box can do, you may have noticed the “Add to these results” note next to the listed results. What does that do? Well, to start with, you get an interesting pane to the right of the current results:


Naturally, I searched for “SEO Chat,” and got a long list of links to this site. So I dragged the top one over. I was prepared for a clunky response, since the site seemed a little slow in delivering search results. But I was pleasantly surprised; it was easy to grab the URL, and when I dragged it over to my original results, they slid smoothly aside as I put it in place. It must be more of that lovely AJAX magic I keep seeing online. Once the new result settled into place, it sported a yellow rectangle just like the one I mentioned before, saying that the result had been moved up by me.

Moving results operates mostly in the way you’d expect, but it doesn’t quite go far enough. You can’t move a result from the first page to the second page (and vice versa). I tried that with a first page result; the page seemed to keep scrolling into blank space, and when I dropped the result into that space, it wound up at the top of the first page! I also noticed that when I moved results down, the signs of this were a little less obvious. Instead of a yellow rectangle, I got some grey text at the bottom of the entry:

Deleting a result removes it completely. The lower results gracefully slide upward to fill the empty space. However, results from the later page don’t scroll onto your current one; your list of results on the page shrinks from ten to nine.

Adding a note works in a way very similar to copying a particular item to a particular search, in that a text box appears in which you type. Let me show you:

 

When you hit enter after you write your comment, you get grey text under the result that tells you what your comment was and how long ago you made it.

If you want, you can choose to do your searches with no edits. This takes away all of the advantages of using the edits, but it can be useful for other purposes – if you want to make a comparison between what actually turns up and what you think is important, for example. If you ever lose track of what searches you have performed, you can always access your search history:


Judging from U Rank’s home page, its real power becomes apparent when you have a number of friends and you’re all searching together or working on the same project. One example that U Rank gave was of a list of favorite restaurants, shared and maintained by a group of friends. Next to each entry, you could clearly see who had moved it up – and although only comments by the searcher were shown, one assumes that there’s a way to set it up so you could see all of your friends’ comments too.

It would work equally well with project-related material. If you’re in a work group and you agree to share whatever resources you find under a particular search (say “Useful PHP tools”), then anyone in the group who does that search will find those links. Well, truthfully, anyone who is your friend will find those links if you’ve set them up to be shared, and they do that search. As ReadWriteWeb points out, “To be really useful, it would also be helpful if you could organize your friends into groups, so that you can share your searches on lists more selectively.”

If you’re a blogger, and you’re constantly scanning the web for ideas, this gives you another option for saving them. After searching with this service and finding something you want to read later (or even doing a quick skim of it in another window), you can put a comment under the result (such as “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about! Rant material”) and then save it under a search such as “My blog post ideas.” So rather than saving the link in a file on your computer, it’s out in the “cloud.” 

You might remember that one of the things on which you could click on U Rank’s home page was a link to your friends. You can click on your friends individually and see what they’re sharing. That’s fun, but it’s also worth remembering that U Rank is set up so that you’re sharing searches by default. If you want to do searches that aren’t shared, you must remember to click that feature off. This is worth keeping in mind if you have a tendency to conduct the kinds of searches you’d rather not share with your friends!

It’s really nice to see Microsoft doing this, but we’ve seen a lot of these features before elsewhere. As Danny Sullivan correctly points out at Search Engine Land, U Rank provides functionality that is very similar to the Google Like/Don’t Like experiment, the editing tools that Wikia Search recently began to provide users, and even by Hakia — that latter has a way for you to check out “trusted results” from librarians and other informational professionals. Going beyond that, Searchles already has the group functionality that ReadWriteWeb wished for, and has had it since the beginning.

So the real question is, can Microsoft take something that so many others have already done and do it so much better that users prefer it? In some ways, that’s a classic Google move; Microsoft’s preferred approach is to come out with the “new” item and leverage its monopoly power to out compete those who are already in the space (“embrace and extend”). The software giant has no monopoly power in this space, however – and since this is a prototype, not an actual product, it’s really premature to say what will happen with it.

On the other hand, it’s an interesting start. And to some extent, it shows that Microsoft can think differently from the way it’s used to thinking. Consider the examples I gave above; rather than having users store their links and information on a PC, and providing the software with which they do it, U Rank lets them organize their lives based on the searches they do, and keeps track of them so users can find the information again. Whether this will be taken up by web searchers and others trying to get things done remains to be seen, but it’s good to see Microsoft trying to make itself useful in the ways people run their lives rather than attempting to force them into the software company’s mold.

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