Farewell Google Notebook, Move over SearchWiki, We need a Search Map

Alas, a noble experiment has been slayed by the relentless hand of corporate focus. Google has announced its web-clipping scrapbook Google Notebook will no longer be actively developed.

I’ve mentioned Google Notebook briefly in the past, as a tool for helping with user-driven searches (more) — or complex searches as I used to call them. Unfortunately, Google never connected the notebook with Search, despite it being a reasonable solution for keeping track of the kind of discoveries you find when doing advanced searches at a lot of different websites.

Instead, Google suggests you try one of their other products:

If you haven’t used Notebook in the past, we invite you to explore the other Google products that offer Notebook-like functionality. Here are a few examples, all of which are being actively improved and should meet your needs:

  • SearchWiki – We recently launched a feature on Search that will let you re-rank, comment, and personalize your search results. This is useful when you’ve found some results on Google Search that were really perfect for your query. You can read about how to use SearchWiki in this blog post.
  • Google Docs – If you’re trying to jot down some quick notes, or create a document that you can share with others, check out Google Docs.
  • Tasks in Gmail – For a lightweight way to generate a todo list or keep track of things, we recently launched Tasks in Gmail Labs.
  • Google Bookmarks – For a tool that can help you remember web pages that you liked and access them easily, take a look at Google Bookmarks. You can even add labels to your bookmarks to better organize and revisit them.

Sigh.

Google NotebookGoogle Notebook fit a unique spot in the Google product portfolio, and as you can see in the comments on the announcement, a lot of people will miss it.

It’s too bad we don’t have our Search organizer product ready, I’d love to swoop in and save the day for all those wayward soles stuck without their Google Notebook. The future holds promise… Still, there something to be gleaned from Google’s recent developments. As I’ve said before, Search is bigger than query/response. And at least some parts of Google know it. But I wonder how much of the rest of the company gets it.

Take SearchWiki for example. Google rolled this out in November of last year. If you use Google through a Google account, SearchWiki gives you three new icons on every result:

  • promote
  • delete
  • comment

Promoting an item moves it to the top of the result list. Delete, predictably, removes it from the results and Comment adds a comment to that result.  The first two are private–only you see the effect of promotions and deletions, while comments are public.

Wikia Search LogoIt is an interesting experiment, if only because it shows how seriously Google takes Wikipedia as competition; the functionality is nearly identical to Wikipedia’s search engine, Wikia. (And many of us have noticed how often Wikipedia entries show up early in Google results.)

It also shows a growing belief that users can help improve Search if they are actively involved. We don’t know what Google is doing with all the user data of who deleted or promoted what, but it will be fun to watch and find out. It will certainly present a different reference frame than PageRank–the core algorithm behind Google–which focuses entirely on the authority of HTML authors and the hyperlinks they put in web pages. If they shift the focus of their ranking to the actions of every day users, Google would shift the moral authority behind their results from web page creators to web page visitors–a much more representative population. That’d be pretty cool.

Unfortunately, the problem with SearchWiki is that it pivots on keywords rather than a more durable concept of Search. It turns out that the promotions and deletions apply only to subsequent queries with the exact same keywords.

Seriously.

southwest airplane cropped 2For example, let’s say you search Google for “travel” and delete Travelocity, Expedia, and CheapTickets, because you’ve already tried those sites and are looking for something new. Then after browsing a bit, you realize you want to see websites for air travel, so you change the query to “air travel”. Suprise!  All those results you deleted are back in the list.

This is more than useless, it makes you feel like all that effort to promote and delete was completely wasted. We know that keywords evolve during advanced Searches. As we explore more of the web, we learn more about what we are looking for and which keywords might work better. And yet, Google’s SearchWiki remains fixated on the keyword query as the central point for tracking user feedback for these kinds of advanced searches–because really, who is going to promote and delete results for one-off, simple searches like finding the phone number for a restaurant? SearchWiki seems like it should be most useful for Searches that take us to dozens and dozens of websites, over days, weeks, even months. And yet, its focus on keywords to track promotions, deletions and comments means SearchWiki is practically useless for anything but the most simplistic queries.

What advanced Searches call for is a tool that helps users track a specific Search across the entire web. One that tracks both explicit and implicit data about the search, lets users organize that data on their own terms, and then lets them share that data with anyone that might be able to help their Search. This combination of keyword queries, clickthroughs, and web captures would be an invaluable representation of their Search Intent. When captured on the user’s behalf, it is a great example of the VRM concept of the user as the point of integration. At SwitchBook, we call the resulting document a Search Map.

samurai silhouetteSearch Maps put the user in charge of all the data related to their Search. Search Maps enable true  user-driven searches (more), where the individual’s Search intent is effortlessly created, easily managed, and expressed to precisely those who can help the most. It is co-created with the user, with full transparency and editability. It allows a complete view of a particular search, organized and confirmed by the user.  It can be sent to any online service that can explicitly acknowledge the user’s own Terms of Use, specifying just exactly how that data can be used. The result is a verified, accurate representation of what the user is looking for right now, ready to be used by any Recommendation Provider capable of respecting the user’s data rights and then responding intelligently to the content of that Search Map.

Search Maps are at the core of SwitchBook’s approach to User-driven Search. We’re working with Doc Searls and the VRM community to explore how Search Maps work, how they can meet the needs of users, and how they can appropriately protect users’ privacy and interests when used to manage and express Search intent.

We hope to discuss this more at the Spring 2009 VRM Workshop, tentatively scheduled for March 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, somewhere on the West Coast. If User-driven Search intrigues you, save the date and look for future announcements on the VRM discussion list. We’d love to see you there.

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