Searchles, We Hardly Knew You!

When I reviewed social bookmarking site Searchles about eight months ago, it looked so promising and the people in charge had so many great new ideas that I figured I’d want to check back in a year to see how they were doing. I’m four months early, but the site has already changed so much that it warrants a second review.

I skimmed my previous review before starting the research for this one; for those of you who want to get up to speed, you can read it here. At the end I noted that the search engine bears watching, and it’s nice to see that I was proven right. But before I dive into the larger changes, let me talk about some of the changes they’ve made that I think of as incremental.

As part of my previous review, I became a member of Searchles, and I’ve found it helpful in my line of work. I belong to several groups, and I would receive an email every time a link was posted to one of those groups, as well as every time someone commented on one of my links…or even one of my comments. That got me a lot of article ideas, but also far too much email. So I was very happy when Searchles put a little more control in the hands of its users; to wit, take a look at this preference panel (cropped and shrunk to fit):


 
Instead of getting an email every time something happens, you have fine grained control for all of your groups and all of your notification types – so you can get a notice immediately, when you receive a summary, or never. This has massively reduced interruptions for me while still giving me the helpful information I need. Incidentally, the drop-down for how frequently you receive a summary email offers lots of different options, from every hour to every three days.

Another change I think of as incremental is how much Searchles uses AJAX on its site now. Whenever you make a comment or save certain changes, the site carries out the operation without having to reload the page. I never thought of how much of a difference that could make in the user experience until I started running into it more; now visiting a site where the pages reload for these simple things feels almost primitive. Kudos for the change!

Searchles has made a lot of other changes to its look and capabilities which, to be honest, I haven’t had the time to check out until now. But when Elias Shams, CEO of Searchles, sent me a press release with the latest list of changes to the site, well, with a looming deadline I couldn’t resist.

Searchles’ home page has changed to emphasize the most active groups and the most active users a lot more. They still show the most recent links on the home page and still display a keyword cloud in the right column. And I was delighted to see that their help has improved, with separate FAQs that explain how to make bookmarks and how they work, how the bookmarklet works, and a lot more. In particular, there’s a list of user questions, a really detailed explanation of how groups work, how to use their widget (great for bloggers) and “Searchles TV,” a way for users to put all their favorite videos in one place.

The biggest change I noticed was in my personal Searchles home page. Let me show you what I mean. Here’s what the page looked like when I did my first review:

  

Very simple, with a few features visible and easily accessible in the upper right corner. Part of the reason it looked so bare is because I hadn’t done much with it at that point. I later added an avatar, a saying, a bunch of links (which showed up in that empty middle area under “terri’s posts”), and friends and groups, which appeared on the lower left in those two rectangles. But look at it now:

 

Okay, the blue rectangle at the top is rather like a control panel. It lets you manage your profile, create and manage groups, create and manage channels for Searchles TV, find friends, and check through posts. There are a lot of new abilities here; group managers can remove spam postings from their groups, invite people to join, ban them, and more. And some groups are invitation only now. I really have to praise Searchles for continuing to give their users the fine-grained control that impressed me eight months ago.

If I went into detail about the stuff in the blue rectangle, I wouldn’t have enough room in this article to talk about some of the most exciting details. So let me just mention Searchles TV – in fact, let me link to Searchles’ information page about it. Basically, you can set up a “channel” on Searchles for all of your favorite videos; just enter the link and you and others can view the videos without leaving Searchles in whatever order they wish. Searchles supports video from YouTube, MySpace, Google Video, Grouper, and blip.tv, and plans to add more. If you like to visit a lot of video sites, Searchles TV can be a great time saver. 

Searchles Live is a new feature that lets you automatically track what is happening in your groups, what people are commenting on, and what your friends are doing. It updates automatically. You get to it by clicking on a “searchles live” link that appears on the upper left on every page. You also see it on your personal home page; check out that big box on the left just under the blue rectangle on the screen shot in the previous section. Let me give you a different view of Searchles Live, from clicking on the link for it:

 

This was cropped and shrunk to fit, but I think you can make out at least some of it. There are three buttons at the upper right, “Pause,” “Clear” and “Settings;” I clicked on the last one to give you an idea of the kinds of filters you can apply. This is literally a live feed. You can see what’s happening with various groups and channels, for openers; that’s the blue box on the left. You can check out who’s rating what; that’s the green box on the right (hmm, looks like dumbfinder is getting in a few afternoon chuckles with some funny videos). And you can see who’s commenting on what; that’s the box just below the green one that barely shows up in the screen shot.

I’m going to refer back to the screen shot of my personal page for a moment, because there’s something I didn’t cover that is also a live feed. That’s the large box on the right:

 

This is actually a feed of the top-rated items among your circles, groups, friends, and friends of friends (that’s what the “fof” stands for). Those are tabs at the top. It’s another feature that can give you a quick impression of what’s going on.

Is Searchles a social bookmarking site, a social search engine, or a social networking site? As near as I can tell, it’s a bit of all three, and each aspect feeds off the others. Shams explained in a presentation that his company’s objective is “To be the glue between people and content on the Internet using social search to deliver better collaboration and more precise, relevant results.”

In short, Searchles seems to be harnessing the kinds of networks that existed between people before the days of the Internet (and still exist today, of course), when you always knew who to ask if you didn’t know how to do something or where to find something. You can join groups if you’re interested in particular things, and if the group is public you can still search through the links posted there for information. You can find out a person’s interests and go through their posts, tapping into their expertise without even having to contact them personally. If you do want to contact them personally, Searchles does have a message system.

You can interact with posts by sharing them with your friends, commenting on them, or rating them (which is one of the ways Searchles can spot spam and try to keep it under control). This is somewhat reminiscent of other sites such as Slashdot, but Searchles offers its users more features.

Searchles is particularly proud of its video search. Its users can post videos from a variety of sites, so it can index videos that you might not find on YouTube. That gives it a definite edge over sites that can only search their own videos, but it will be a while (if ever) before Searchles’ index matches YouTube on sheer quantity. As to quality, well, it wouldn’t be on Searchles if someone didn’t see it, like it, and think it was worth sharing, though one can say the same thing about YouTube. It becomes a question of the taste of your users.

Searchles is a hybrid. It’s been said of hybrids that they tend to not do any one thing well – but if you’re a dog lover you also know that some of the hardiest dogs are mixed breeds. Searchles is not just a social bookmarking site, because people can comment on bookmarks and interact with other users; it’s not just a social site like Slashdot or Digg because users are actually saving bookmarks and displaying their interests; it’s not just a networking site because such sites (LinkedIn is one example; dating sites are another) don’t typically have people posting and saving URLs, let alone having other people comment on them. About the only thing Searchles doesn’t have that’s Web 2.0 is separate blogs for its users.

You’d think all of this would be confusing, but Searchles has managed to pull it all together in a way that is easy to understand after you’ve played with the site for a while. And it can be rather addictive to play with. This lovable mutt is starting to look a little like a contender, and I’m looking forward to seeing what it comes up with next.

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