Middlespot: Getting More Out of Search

In the first part of this two-part review, I introduced you to Middlespot, a Canada-based startup company with an online tool that can help you organize your online research. In this second part, I finish my review, touch on the features they plan to add, and give my overall opinion.

I left off last time showing you how to create a workpad with Middlespot and add information to it, such as notes on each individual site, to make it more useful. If you like to share things, you’ll be pleased to find out that having a workpad doesn’t have to be a totally solitary pursuit.

Sharing and Using Your Workpad

It’s true that you don’t have to be social on this site; if you’re doing research by yourself, that’s perfectly fine. But if you have friends who are into some of the same things, you might want to show them what you’ve turned up. And that is what the “email” option is for. Clicking on it lets you email your currently-open workpad to someone else. It pops up a small form, like so:

 
All you need to do is enter a “from” email address, the email address you’re sending to, a subject line, and body text (which may be optional). Middlespot sends your buddy a link to your workpad. He or she will be able to look at the workpad, but not add or subtract anything.

By the way, your workpads are NOT public by default; if you want anyone other than yourself to see them, you need to make an actual effort. Fortunately, that’s not difficult. In addition to emailing a workpad, you can also embed it on your web site. I’m not exactly sure what that does. Middlespot notes that it’s “completely flexible so you can decide how big both the embed frame is and the size of the screenshots. Any comments you made about each screenshot are presented as mouse over tips.” If you choose to do this, you’ll always know when people have looked at your workpad because “a view counter keeps track of how many times your shared community have opened your workpad.”

After you’ve put a lot of content into a workpad, you may get tired of looking at it as a strip across the bottom of the screen. Middlespot anticipated this; hit the “maximize” option and your workpad gets displayed as if it were a Middlespot search result:

If you take a look at the left pane here, you can even see the comments I made on the workpad, in italic.

Already I’m sure you can see the usefulness of Middlespot. But we’re not quite done yet. The search engine also offers some handy tools to help expand its usefulness to researchers.

The first clever tool is a bookmarklet. It’s a way to carry Middlespot’s capabilities with you even when you aren’t on the site. Firefox users simply drag the bookmarklet logo to their Firefox browser toolbar, while IE users will have to click on the bookmarklet logo and select “add to my favorites.” Then, whenever you come across a web page that would be a helpful addition to your research, all you need to do is click the “middlespot me” button in your browser toolbar. This will pop up a small window that will ask you to which workpad (if you  have more than one) you would like to save the web page. The next time you open that workpad in Middlespot, you will see a screen shot and hyperlink of that web page.

The second tool offered by Middlespot shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been online for almost any length of time. It’s a full-fledged tool bar. It lets you begin a search on Middlespot directly from your browser. To add this tool bar, you simply click on the “add our search” button on the Tools page of Middlespot’s web site and follow the instructions. The tool bar is not a homegrown creation; Middlespot notes that it was “generously provided by http://www.addoursearch.com.”

The third tool is an intelligent bow to the realities of the search engine market. Middlespot seems to realize that most people will prefer to search with Google. That’s not a problem. With this Firefox-only tool, users initiate a search in Google, but their results page will display a “middlespot me” logo and hyperlink after each numbered result. Clicking the logo causes a small pop-up window to appear. It asks the user to which workpad they would like to save that Google result. The next time time they open that workpad in Middlespot, they’ll see the screen shot and corresponding text of the search result they saved.

I’d like to comment here on how Middlespot got the help right. There were a number of features I discovered on my own, such as the arrows and the slider bar I described in the previous part, but in general everything is there for you. The interface is clear and intuitive. The slide show I linked to in the first part of this review provides you with an excellent overview. For more detailed help, there are the contextual “tips” links that you will find in appropriate panes as you use Middlespot.

As with most of your interaction with the site, these tips appear in pop-up boxes when clicked. There are three different tips boxes, and you can toggle between them regardless of which area you clicked. Let me show you what I mean:

This is the tips screen you will see if you click on the tips link in the workpad section. But if you look at the bottom right corner, you will see links for “text result tips” and “screenshot tips.” Clicking on either of these takes you to the appropriate tips page.

You’ll notice also that the tips are written with just enough information to jog your memory as to what each item does. There’s nothing cute or whimsical here or anywhere else on the site. This reflects the site’s focus and its anticipated audience. Even if you’re creating something cutesy with attitude, when you’re in the process of collecting information, you don’t need the jokes; you need a tool that helps you get the job done.

As you would expect for a free online service, Middlespot is ad-supported. And as you would expect for a service that librarians have discovered and said nice things about, the ads are not intrusive. When I ran my searches, Middlespot was running Google text ads.

It’s obvious that they want to branch out, however, as they include a link for advertisers at the top right of their about page. Because Middlespot is in such a competitive space, it offers some pretty sweet terms. Advertisers get exclusivity; they’re the only paid sponsorship that appears on a particular page to users. You get your descriptive text and hyperlink to your product and service at the beginning of a search. You also get your own screen shot graphic inserted in the screen shot gallery, and your descriptive text and hyperlink inserted after every 25 results displayed.

The ads may help their business model, but Middlespot is really focused on helping their users. So if you go right to their web site after this article is published, you may find a few new features that I haven’t mentioned because they weren’t live when I wrote my review. Brownlee gave me some highlights:

  • Suggestions of other websites you might find interesting, based on what you’ve accumulated in a workpad. Think of the recommendation engines you’ll find at Amazon, iTunes, Netflix and similar services, and you’re on the right track. Brownlee hinted that it seemed to work well once you have about five or six captured results in your workpad. In the course of editing this article, I received an email from him indicating that this new feature had in fact gone live, so don’t be surprised if you see it.
  • The ability to upload a file up to 100 MB in size into your workpad to go along with your collected results. This will be any type of file (MP3, video, Word document, PDF document) that you think is relevant. This means you can have your homework, novel, dissertation, what have you, in the same place as your research material.
  • A pull-down tool that lets you see your search history for the last 20 sessions. If you do research that lasts more than one session and sometimes change your mind about sites worth saving, this could be a real time saver.
  • Increased workpad collaboration, so that you can choose to allow specific people to add, edit, and delete entries as well. Currently, you can allow others only to view your workpads. This ability could be very handy for those who are collaborating on research projects.
  • Improvements to the embed format to make it look better for those who choose to use it on their blog or website. 

Middlespot has managed to combine a number of features I’ve seen before in a way that feels new. There are tons of visual search engines out there, including ones that have an interface that lets you see the screen shots. There are also social bookmarking sites that let you group the URLs you want to save under particular categories, and even share the group with others (Searchles comes to mind). The ability to save it on your own computer is something I haven’t seen before, however. The potential community aspect of a workpad that can be gained from embedding it in a blog or website reminds me a little bit of Google’s Custom Search Engines. I didn’t see a specific “search within workpad” ability, but I imagine Middlespot will be adding that soon.

My two biggest criticisms for Middlespot are that they need to tackle the speed issue and, at least at the time of writing, they need to clean up the spelling and grammar issues (they go beyond the American/Canadian English differences). For the moment, that can be forgiven, but it may interfere with their getting a wider audience. That would be a real shame. I can see some real potential for Middlespot as a tool for online researchers of various levels. I’m looking forward to seeing how these three Canadians expand and develop Middlespot’s capabilities next.

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