Is Spock the Logical Choice for People Search?

A general search engine like Google is okay for many kinds of searches, and may even be quite good in certain areas, but it can’t compare with a specialized search engine in its area of expertise. So argue medical search engines, job hunting sites, and now people search engines. Today we’ll look at Spock, a people search engine that’s still in private beta, to see if it helps us find people better than Google.

It’s been estimated that 30 percent of searches online are for people. How well do we find who we’re looking for? That probably depends on how obscure the person is. For example, I share my name with a singer, a baseball player, an artist, an actor who also works as a set designer, and – perhaps most disturbingly – another writer who has written about computers and the Internet. Still, I can be found on the first page of Google. I can’t say the same thing for our much more accomplished CTO, Rich Smith.

These days though, a lot of people use Google to research prospective employees, dates, tenants, what have you. Online, it’s easy enough to mistake one person for another. If you happen to share a common name like Smith, or a particularly famous name as Josh Clark writing for Global Moxie pointed out, you’re not going to show up high in Google’s search results. There will be pages of other Smiths, or pages of sites devoted to your celebrity doppelganger.

Enter Spock. I first started hearing about this people search engine in early April. At the time they were just starting to receive financing; they’re currently funded by Clearstone Venture Partners (who have also funded the likes of Overture and PayPal) and Opus Capital Ventures. Spock is still in private beta, so I had to content myself with reading reviews by Josh Clark and Tim O’Reilly while waiting for the invitation I’d requested.

I’m pleased to say I finally received that invitation, so for the first time I’m getting to look at something before all of the rest of the world has seen it. So fasten your seat belts; we’re checking this ship out from stem to stern.

Believe it or not, the login screen was a little confusing for a second. Clicking on the link for my invitation, I came to this page, which, as with all the images in this article, I’ve cropped and reduced to fit:

Quickly, where do I log in? I thought it was the first set of text boxes until I saw the second set. By the way, I didn’t get a login with my email. I am a member of LinkedIn, but I didn’t want to use it for this trial. Fortunately, there’s a link on this page (not shown here) that will let me skip the option of using a particular social networking service. So we come to this page next:


That part is easy; I put my name in and hit the check box telling it that I’m at least 13 years old. At first it didn’t accept this, and I had to tell it again. Remember, this is a private beta after all. Once it does take my information it gives me a username, I put in a password, and we’re off. I would be curious to see, once it gets out of private beta, how Spock will confirm that its users are at least 13 years old. There are a number of ways to do this; each of these has its own pluses and minuses (sadly I don’t think the Vulcan mind meld is one of them).

Now that I’m logged in, I want to start searching. Here’s my start page, with tips on some of the things I can do while I’m using Spock. Ignore what’s in the search box for the moment; I put it there because I was so eager to get started. The box comes up blank when you start.

 

Spock’s actual home page, by the way, looks more like this (I’ll explain the “favorite” listed in the second part of this two-part review):

What you don’t see in this picture, because I cropped it, are links in the upper right hand corner to Terri Wells (my name), Favorites, History, Settings, and Logout. I’ll be coming back to those. Before I do, though, we’re going to learn about all of the features listed on the start page. The Spock blog contains a series of entries that were posted on May 9 that do a great job of explaining everything, but there’s nothing like trying it out yourself to get the hang of it.

Spock is set up to help you “look for all types of people, from famous people like Paris Hilton to people in your own personal network,” says the Spock blog. You can search for them by name or use a category or tag, like athlete, celebrity, politician, singer, or even Star Trek actors. And of course you can get as specific as you want (George Bush comes up under a search for “Drunk Driver” for instance). You can even search for people relevant to a particular topic, like search engine optimization (Matt Cutts made it to the top of Spock’s list there, to no one’s great surprise). Spock populates its index by crawling Wikipedia and various social networking sites. Though it automatically creates tags, users can also add their own tags, and vote on the relevance of those tags.

Here it’s worth noting that Spock seems to want very precise terms. When I searched on Star Trek actors, I received only 17 hits, most of them for actors that didn’t ring any bells, and only one from the original series (a guest star at that). When I put in the term Star Trek actor, without the “s,” it was an entirely different story:

You can’t see it because I cropped this image to fit, but I received more than 1000 hits. As is appropriate for a search engine named Spock, Leonard Nimoy is at the top.

I’d like to point out a couple of really cool things about this search result that make it a better search for people than Google. First of all, every hit is one person, and every person is different. If you do a search on the name "William Shatner," for instance, you are NOT going to get 5,000 hits for William Shatner unless they are all different William Shatners – in this case, Shat happens only once. The other really cool thing is that each entry from the search results contains a ton of information you can see before you even click on it, including some of the person’s tags, which are clickable and can lead you to other people who share those interests or that occupation. So there’s plenty of room for serendipity.

There’s one more really neat thing I’d like to show you about the search results before moving on. Right now you see them as a list. In the upper right corner of the results (again, I had to crop) are two clickable words, “List” and “Grid.” When you click on Grid, you get this:

So if you’re thinking to yourself, “Okay, I know this person was an actor on Star Trek, and I can’t remember her name, but I know what she looked like, now who WAS she?!” you can find out more quickly than if you had to look at the full list. The list view shows only 10 people per page, but the grid view shows 40 people per page. And yes, the names under the photos are clickable, so you can go right from the grid to the person’s profile.

Before we go to a profile, it’s worth noting that the search button offers an advanced option. All you have to do is click on the word “Advanced” just below the search button. An advanced search looks like this:


 
You can use name or email, tags, location, age range, or gender, and require Spock to give you a picture (all in any combination). It’s just another way to get specific about your search and help narrow things down.

So let’s say we’re fans of classic Star Trek, and decide to click on William Shatner. Here’s a screen shot of the page that greets us when we do:

I’m afraid the screen shot really doesn’t do this profile justice. You’ll notice there are multiple parts. At the upper left of course is Shatner’s name. Just under that is a section for the tags that everyone has given him. Below that is a section that shows web sites that are related to him. Beneath that is a section for related people. Then, at the upper right, is his picture, with a few vital statistics (his age, gender, how many times the profile has been viewed and any other names by which he is known). Right above his name are links to Tags, Pictures, Related People, and Contact Info, which take you to the full information in each section.

I’m barely scratching the surface here though. Every tag is clickable; every website is clickable; every related person (when there are related people) shows up in the related people section with a picture with a clickable name. So you can potentially find out a lot about a person in a relatively short amount of time, which makes this great for researchers.

With a celebrity like William Shatner, though, not everything fits neatly onto one page. For example, if you think that list of tags looks a little short for a former captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, just click on the tags title and you’ll see you were right:

The blue link at the bottom that’s hard to make out in this image says “show tags with negative scores.” These are the tags that have been voted down as not being relevant to the person in the profile; when you click to show the tags, they appear on the page in red, just below the rest of the tags.

You can click on the titles of the appropriate sections to show all the websites related to this person, and all the relevant people related to this person. Or if you don’t feel like clicking on the titles of the sections, in the lower right hand corner of each section is a blue link that takes you to the same place (all tags, or all websites, or all related people). Of course, you can also click on the links I pointed out that appear above Shatner’s picture to take you where you want to go. I think it’s great that Spock is using this approach; if visitors can get to the same place in multiple ways, there’s less chance that a user will get frustrated from being unable to find something. 

Okay, there’s one more thing I’d like to draw your attention to before I finish this part. Up near the top of this profile, between William Shatner’s name and his picture, is a link that says “Forward.” Yes, I know, it’s a little hard to make out in the image. There was also a “Forward” link in the upper right corner of the search results. When you click that link, it pops up a fresh email from your email application, with the link already put in. The link is accompanied by a descriptive phrase, so whoever receives your email knows what he or she is getting. For example, if I’d used “Forward” right after I did my earlier search, the email would say “Hey, check out the link below – it’s a really cool search result for “Star Trek actor” on Spock.”

Now this much alone would make Spock pretty cool and useful as a search engine. But there’s a lot more going on here. Can you say web 2.0? In my next article, I’m going to continue this review by showing you how you can add and vote on tags, websites, and related people; claim your profile; and explain all those links at the upper right (your name, Favorites, History, and Settings at least; Logout should be obvious). So until tomorrow…

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