Yoople, A Search Experiment in People Power

It’s not surprising, with the rise of web 2.0, that a search engine should look for a way to combine user interaction with regular search results to improve its relevancy. Enter Yoople. Using Yahoo’s results as a jumping-off point, the early beta project hopes to do what the search engine itself hasn’t quite been able to manage: deliver better results through direct visitor interaction with the SERPs.

Technically, Yoople itself is not a search engine per se; nor is it, as it points out in its FAQ, a crawler, a spider, a substitute for search engines, or even a yogurt. It "is a Web 2.0 Application built on Prototype and Script.aculo.us and based on [the] Yahoo! Web Search API." This means in principle that it could also be built on top of Google’s search API; indeed, the company says the name comes from combining "Yahoo! + Google + People." We’ll see if Google responds to Yoople’s advances.

So what exactly does Yoople do? When you put a search term into the engine, it gives you a page of 10 results. If you find that the most relevant result for your search is, for example, the sixth one rather than the first one, you can drag it from the sixth position and drop it into the first. Think of it as direct voting; you’re telling the program that keeps track of this kind of thing (and presumably everyone else who performs the same search) that this is a better ordering of the results.

By the way, you’re totally anonymous when you do it, as near as I can tell. There’s no name that says who moved the result, nor is there any room for you to make some kind of comment as to why you thought this particular result should be in a different position. The only indications of a change in Yahoo’s normal ordering appear in a gray line of text at the bottom of the link (about which more in the next section). Those who enjoy the kind of interesting back and forth within a community that can develop with social search engines such as Del.icio.us or Searchles will be somewhat disappointed.

When you visit the Yoople website located at http://www.yoople.net (note the suffix), you’re greeted with the kind of clean interface pioneered by Google:


 

I shrunk and cropped the image. You’re probably wondering about the "I’m Feeling Pizza!" button. Well, Yoople’s founders are Italian, so they thought pizza would be a good thing to let everyone search for automatically and juggle the results. On the actual site, below the image you see above are links to an About page, a FAQ, and two ways to reach the company (links labeled "Any comment?" and "Contact us").

So what happens when you click that pizza button? You get a pretty standard-looking set of results:

 

So far there’s nothing surprising for someone who does regular searches all the time with any search engine. But look closely and you’ll see a gray line under the green URL. I’d like to focus in on that, because it’s what makes Yoople different.

This is the entry that is number one for pizza in Yoople. If you look on the left, the gray text tells you that its position in the Yahoo results would be number four. The Yoople Position and Yoople Factor are apparently ways of expressing the difference between a result’s Yahoo and Yoople position. Over on the right you can see that this particular result has been moved 100 times.

The results for pizza have been moved around a lot; it’s very easy. If you check one of the earlier pictures you’ll see that there’s been a lot of jockeying for position between Papa John’s, Domino’s, and Pizza Hut. But since I’m rather annoyed that Pizzeria Uno didn’t even turn up in the first 30 results (which I could only get to by clicking an arrow at the bottom of the page), I’m going to have a little fun.

   
Look at the second entry. It shows up as the twelfth item in Yahoo’s results for pizza, but here I’ve been able to bump it up to number two! It’s worth noting that it took me several moves to get it there; when I tried to move the result that was in the thirtieth position up to number two, Yoople wouldn’t let me. When I performed the pizza search again after engaging in my manipulations, Little Caesars once again showed up in position 12.

Incidentally, you can also move listings down. As with moving entries up, though, there’s apparently a limit as to how far you can move them. I couldn’t move the entry in the number two spot lower than the number five spot. I don’t know if Yoople has some kind of algorithm for this, or what it’s based on: number of times the entry has been moved? How far it has been moved? The usual direction in which it has been moved?

If this particular approach to improving search sounds familiar, it’s because Google has tried something similar with its SearchMash experimental search engine. I don’t know if it’s still one of SearchMash’s features, but when I reviewed it some time ago you could move the results around, and the next time you ran that particular search, the search engine took your indicated preferences into consideration.

Danny Sullivan correctly points out that any site trying to move themselves to the top of the results by brute force manipulation must have earned at least some basic ranking in Yahoo, or else there isn’t anything to drag and drop. Even there, it takes a lot of work. Using a search term other than "pizza," I tried to move one particular result one place up the rankings. Moving it up one rank 13 times by performing the drag and drop and then reloading the search didn’t do it – and the result I was trying to get past had only been moved six times. Hardly any of the other results on the first page had been moved at all (then again, the search was for a highly competitive term).

This doesn’t mean the system can’t be abused, however. Another reviewer of Yoople commented that there’s nothing in place to verify that the results are being moved by humans. Doing something to make visitors verify that they’re human would be more of a pain than it’s worth – can you imagine having to go through a captcha before every move you make? Even if there was a way to verify it without being really annoying, there’s nothing to detect intention – or prevent some business from paying a bunch of people to move their rival’s site (or perhaps a "thiscompanysucks" site) so far down in the results that searchers won’t find it.

For a tiny little search experiment like Yoople, that may not matter much; I can’t see very many people using Yoople as it stands now, especially with Google as the dominant search engine. But that could change. Even assuming it doesn’t, the idea of this kind of collaborative search isn’t going away. If and when larger search engines consider adopting something like this to improve the relevance of their search results, the bugs will need to be worked out way in advance. It’s the kind of thing that is hard to resist playing with, especially if you own a site that ranks (and you wish would rank higher).

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