AfterVote Gives Meta Search Engines Web 2.0 Spin

Meta search engines are nothing new. They take the keywords you search for, submit them to several different search engines at the same time, and return a combined result. AfterVote, formerly named Younanimous, adds a Web 2.0 spin to meta search engines. It’s voting, but not quite as you know it.

Aftervote admits on its own FAQ page that there are “just 3 guys keeping AfterVote online” using “money from our normal jobs to pay for the servers and the coding work is our own.” So what can three guys working after hours accomplish? Well, that depends on their starting point.

In this case, the starting point is the three major search engines: Google, Yahoo, and MSN (or is it Microsoft Live?). AfterVote doesn’t have access to their algorithms, but for its purposes, it doesn’t need access. It hopes to deliver more relevant results than any of those three can alone, thanks to three factors working synergistically.

First, by taking advantage of the fact that there are three heads at work instead of one, AfterVote shows you how all three search engines ranked any one particular result. Presumably, if it wanted to it could filter results to show you only the ones that all three search engines agreed are relevant, or at least put those at the top. (In fact, it might actually work that way; I couldn’t tell easily from my research, but it did seem to work that way when I tested it).

Second, AfterVote brings Web 2.0 to search by adding a voting mechanism. It’s not exactly the kind of voting you think though. Yes, you can actively vote links up or down the way you would on other social sites such as Digg. But AfterVote also takes advantage of “passive voting” to determine relevance.

Passive voting kicks in when you engage in a behavior that anyone who has ever done a search will recognize. AfterVote describes it thus: “You do a search…and you click the first result. It’s not what you were looking for at all…You press the back button and try result #2. Voila! You found exactly what you are looking for…AfterVote(Younanimous) is analyzing these results and has a vote for you automatically, saying that result #1 wasn’t what you wanted, but #2 was.”

Third, AfterVote gives its users a variety of ways to weight their results. You can also save your results to various social networks. Reading through the AfterVote blog is an almost dizzying experience. The company seems intent on letting users customize the search experience in just about any way that might deliver more relevant results. Having said that, it’s time to take a look at AfterVote and see how well it delivers on its promises.

AfterVote clearly graduated from the Google School of Search Engine Home Page Design:

I seriously cropped and shrank this screen shot of AfterVote’s home page to try to fit in all the links. As you can see, AfterVote has settings for searching the web, images, and video. That’s a good move since the Internet is such a visual medium and becoming more visual every day. A news tab would be nice, but then again if you started adding new tabs like that where would you stop?

Before we start searching with it, I’d like to bring your attention to the line of links at the top right. The “Install Search Plugin” link doesn’t work with any version of Internet Explorer lower than 7. Trying it with FireFox calls up a window that asks you if you want to add the search engine to the Search Bar; in other words, it appears to be a toolbar plugin not unlike Google’s or Yahoo’s. Home of course just takes you to the home page, while About gives you a page that describes what the search engine does and why it’s cool. Feedback takes you to a pretty standard feedback form; you can even have them contact you. The blog and the FAQ are also pretty self-explanatory.

It’s the red “Settings” link that opens up a different world of searching. You may remember how the three major search engines have been experimenting with weighted searches and personalized searches and other methods that let users add levels of control beyond just doing a general search. AfterVote seems to take it to the next level. Click on the link, and you’re greeted with this screen:

As you can see, the “Engine Settings” tab lets you weight the results of each search engine in the results you receive. You can take the sliders all the way down to 1 or up to 100 or anywhere in between (the settings you see are the defaults). You can also control how many results you get from Yahoo and MSN – anywhere between 10 and 100.

If those numbers sound low to you, keep in mind that AfterVote is playing a game of quality, not quantity. The company brought this point home in its blog when it did a search on its own name in Google. The search engine giant returned nearly 77,000 results – but 75,000 of the results were “supplemental.” As AfterVote explained, “raw hard numbers doesn’t mean a better result for your search term — it just means thousands of copies of the same data, over and over again.”

You can already see what one tab lets you do. The Search Settings tab lets you tell the search engine to either “search all document types” or “Don’t return results which are of type .pdf/.doc/.ppt.” The rationale is that you can eliminate data sheets and academic papers from your results if you wish. On this tab you can also “Open Supplemental Results” or “Disable Safe Search.” (I’ll get to those later).

The Privacy tab is something I think even the Electronic Frontier Foundation would like. It explains how the search engine aggregates content (complete with a “Warning Geek Content” box). But even better, it gives you the option of not having your votes tracked.

The Result Display tab lets you choose to have your results interacted with by more widgets than you can shake a stick at. Let me show you what I mean:

It’s quite a selection, as you can see. I could tell you what some of them do but not all of them; I do know many of them are useful. If I wanted to compile a wish list of things to add to the search engine, it would be nice to be able to hover over each of these listed widgets and see a tool tip that briefly explained what it does.

Finally we come to the blacklist/whitelist tab. This gives you another chance to weight your results. See some site you never want to see again? You can use this tab to do that. See another site that’s so good you want their results to show up as a priority when you do a search? You can do that too.

It’s worth noting that this site is AJAX-powered. What does that mean? Well, certain things don’t require page reloads, which improves the user experience; it speeds things up overall. All I had to do after opening and looking at all those tabs is click the close button and I was back on the home page instantly. Once there, of course, I decided to search…and what better term to search for than SEO?

So what do we have here? First of all, those icons at the top left of the page let you sort your results by AfterVote position (that’s the default), Google rank, Yahoo rank, MSN, rank, Google PageRank, and Alexa position. These are the defaults that AfterVote set up; if you check on different widgets in your settings, you would presumably see different options.

Now let’s dissect the individual entries. While I’ve seen comments that said AfterVote looked cluttered, it’s surprising that they’ve fit in as much as they have without it looking worse than it is. Okay, on the left side of each result you’ll notice little icons with numbers next to them. Those tell you the position for that particular result in each search engine. That alone makes AfterVote potentially useful as an SEO tool – but note that it only returns the top 10 results from each search engine on the default setting. For this search, I only received two pages of results.

I’d like to draw your attention to the first listing. Here’s something that should be a little easier to make out:

Take a look at the blue sentence just above the row of icons; it says “1 supplemental results found, click to toggle.” That’s another example of AJAX in action. You can click on that sentence to see supplemental results, and the page shows them to you without reloading. Otherwise, it stays closed, saving space. This is closed by default; it’s what one of the tabs was referring to when it let you check a box to show supplemental results as open or not. Here’s what it looks like when you toggle:

As near as I can tell, Google doesn’t have a feature like this. It will indent additional results from the same site, but you still get a full result. I’ve searched with Google News; you often get a green link below a result that takes you to links for “all X news articles” that were related. But that takes you to a completely different page with links, and of course the new page has to load.

There is much more to this search engine than what I’ve gone over here, but I’ve run out of room. Please check back next week. Among other things, I’ll tell you about all those intriguing icons.

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