Is building an Australian blog search engine (or index) like building a better mousetrap?

Gnoos

Is blogging a patriotic sport? Do you blog for your countrymen? Do you hunt down your countryman’s blogs? Are other countries experiencing a small explosion of search engines and indexes that help them find blogs of their country in the same way that we are here in Australia?

I don’t know… it all just seems a little strange and redundant to me… (sorry Ben!)

I guess I think of myself as an Australian blogger… (although, that’s going to get a bit more complex in the next few weeks). I don’t think of my blog as an Australian blog though.

I’ve enjoyed some of the blogs I’ve happened upon via Gnoos (still in beta I believe) and the newly launched News 2.0 … but I feel no compulsion to re-visit them frequently, in the same way that I do Technorati, and, of course, Google.

When I’m looking for a blog, most of the time it’s because I’m looking for a topic, a subject. I’m looking to see what others are saying. I’m very rarely interested in where the writers are located. If the topic I’m searching on has an Australian flavour, I assume that my search will turn up Australian writers naturally. And by and large that’s worked quite well.

What I find when I visit sites like Gnoos and News 2.0 are lots of Australian sites on topics that I’m not *really* interested in. It’s nice for a visit to find that people are writing about the current series of Big Brother or a restaurant they went to on the weekend. These aren’t sites I’m likely to subscribe to though.

There’s something about these sites that makes me feel as though they’re quietly waiting for News or Fairfax to buy them out… Other than that, I just don’t see the point.

Not that I think we should completely write off either of these sites (or the other Australian Blog related sites). They both add something interesting to the land of blog.

Jon Yau of News 2.0 describes his service this way:

I hope people would use it as a sacrificial news aggregator – ie. allowing them to check out Australian blogs before subscribing to the ones they like. I’ve added a tagcloud to help determine ‘What is the Australian blogosphere talking about TODAY?’

I like the idea of this – and I don’t think that anyone has quite got that idea to work properly yet. Case in point – on News 2.0 this very moment some of the highlighted tags include; utilitarianism, squirrel, stakeholders, norms, leviticus, graham.

This is what the Australian blogosphere is talking about today? You bunch of weirdos! (disclaimer: I deliberately left out a whole bunch of much more predictable tags for the purpose of illustrating the point). Which of you Australian bloggers were blogging about Leviticus? Come on. Own up. And who’s blogging about Graham? :)

Yes, of course. It’s sample size, and Jon also says that his site is still just in working prototype mode… but the problem is always going to be sample size.

Over on Gnoos, they’re tracking the hot searches in Australian blogging. Currently the number one search is “Gnoos“. Now, that’s odd… you get to Gnoos and then search for the site that you’re already on? Could be some beta testing and bug squashing and algorithmic refining (then more testing) is skewing the results. It doesn’t get much better though with Big Brother and AFL also featuring in the top five.

See… you wonder why I use Technorati. Their top tags this hour include blog-tools, web 2.0, wordpress, SEO and, of course, sex.
But, enough of that, and more of what is interesting. The search results interface for Gnoos. (You can only see this if you have a beta invite, but I’m sure if you email the guys they’ll happily let you in to play!).

There are a few interesting things about the Gnoos search results… It’s bit of a mix of a search engine, Digg, and an RSS Reader. See, once you have your search results – you really don’t need to go to the blog at all (except if you wanted to subscribe to it, I guess. Or comment *on* the blog.) The search results have a bunch of inbuilt features including:

  • comments: this is a digg-like feature. I can see it’s place on Digg, where people can debate whether or not a post is digg-worthy perhaps, but wouldn’t it be more productive for everyone to go comment on the blog post?!;
  • ranking: you can vote a post up or down… not sure exactly how this works or how it will work in the future. Presumably the search algorithm is based on relevance and timeliness… is there some ‘ranking’ factor built in there as well or are there other plans for aggregating popularly voted posts?;
  • tags: you, and others, can tag posts. You can see how others have tagged posts (not that there’s a lot of tagging action going on there). Again, not sure how this comes out at the other end, presumably it’s also integrated into how the posts are searched. Although I think it’s a kind of cute idea, it seems kind of odd at the same time. Like the search engine needs me to tell it how to find this post. Potential for exploiting this functionality could also be interesting…
  • read the post in the search engine (the more button): here’s the one that I think is probably most interested in. Click on the More button and you don’t get taken to the blog post in question, the page slides open to reveal the blog post, IN the search engine. If you’re compulsive about your blog stats or are feeding your kids with your Adsense revenue, you’d better hope this doesn’t take off… the incentive for people to actually hit your blog is rapidly diminishing. It kind of takes RSS to a whole new level.

Personally I’m not too fussed about this. I was never planning to make a motza via advertising on my blog and I suspect that a significant proportion of people read my posts via RSS already. If this keeps up I’ll never have to worry about finally re-designing my blog ;) It also seems like a natural way for content to be used… to be independent and freely available, and re-usable where ever it is wanted.

At the same time… when I submitted my blog to Gnoos, I didn’t know they were going to do this. When I first saw it, I was torn between thinking it was cool and feeling like they’d ripped me off.

I’m still kind of vexed, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

So, don’t let it be said that these new entrants to the blog searching world are insignificant. They’re not at all.

I’m just not sure what they’re doing, and whether I ever really need to search for Australian blogs.

But you tell me:

Am I being unAustralian? Have I completely missed the point? Is this going on in Spain as well?

image credit: FrankArr @ Flickr

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ActNow Launches (2.0 for good not evil)

Act Now
So, one minute you’re enthusiastically selling toffees at recess at school to raise money for Fred Hollows Foundation, and the next minute you’re thirty something and can hardly be bothered to vote. How is it that so many of us become so disengaged with the issues that affect us, our families, our community and our world?
Keeping young people engaged and active on the issues that matter to them is the mission of ActNow – the latest inspirational program from the Inspire Foundation.
Isn’t that a great mission for a 2.0 site? Yes? Well, don’t just sit there. Act Now! Tell your friends, tell your friends’ kids, write about it on your blog. Get busy. Please :)
I had a flying trip down to Melbourne yesterday for the launch party. When I was producing at Massive I had the pleasure of working on this project and it is exciting to see ActNow move out of beta and into the wild. I’ll be watching (and reading) with great interest.

ActNow is not your average old website – it’s really quite 2.0. You’ll find many of the 2.0 buzzwords in action on the site including User Generated Content (come up with a better buzzword and I’ll use it), RSS, Social Networks and more. It’s based on a Wiki format, where members can create their own pages using a range of different templates, and create or upload content – written word, photos, video, Flash movies, you name it.

Members can go back and edit their content whenever they like. They can also give permission to other members to edit the content. So, if you’re putting a page together about Obesity, and there are a group of you doing research on the issue, you can all contribute to the content that goes on the page.

As you can imagine, this was the topic of *much* angst. Letting anyone put whatever content they like on the website. It’s a scary thing to do. As you can imagine, the lawyers were terrified. But, trust is a 2.0 thing too. We needed to have faith in the community that would build on ActNow and trust that people will use the powers given to them for good and not evil.

Throughout the project we had a little mantra that I borrowed from Peter Merholz of Adaptive Path.

”The Web’s lesson is that we have to let go, to exert as little control as necessary. What are the fewest necessary rules that we can provide to shape the experience? Where do people, tools, and content come together? How do we let go in a way that’s meaningful and relevant to our business?”

Time will tell if this risk pays off. Of course, it will be a pretty quick task to get rid of these freedoms and to build in a more onerous moderation path… but who wants that? Certainly Inspire don’t need the extra work, and it takes away that ‘magic’ of the internet, which is that you press a button and it’s suddenly there for the world to see.

Moderation is boring. So, we’ve taken the approach of distributing moderation – on all of the content pages is the option to ‘report’ content – meaning that the ‘official’ moderators only need to look at a few pages (hopefully) rather than check off every single thing that goes on the site.

I’m fascinated to see how this plays out.

That beautiful homepage is pretty cool too. It looks like a tag cloud, but it’s actually not. (In fact, no tags were used in the making of this site… so, perhaps it’s not really 2.0 afterall ;) – don’t you worry, they *were* discussed at length but we opted out).

So, those things that look like tags are actually the names of the various issues that people are writing about on the site. The ones that are being viewed the most are shown in the cloud on the homepage, with the most often viewed shown in the largest font size and less often viewed in gradually smaller font sizes. Cool huh.

(Don’t you love it when XML and Flash play so nicely together?! Cheers to Damian and Dom for their technical brilliance and many hours of hard work)
ActNow Screenshot

What we’ll get to see over time is what issues are most important or interesting to young people. Also, when something big is happening in the news we’re expecting that this will probably be reflected on the homepage cloud, making it really easy for people to get straight to the content they’re interested in.

It also allows you to get a quick preview of all the top issues from the homepage, thanks to the little preview box.

Lots of crazy stuff, hey? Will the young people be able to use it? We can confidently say yes. You see, this site has been designed in concert with the people who use it, and they’ve been testing it and testing it for months now. Lots of them!
The project has already involved more than 100 young people, participating in ‘incubators’, as interns, helping to develop content and start build the online community.

Working on a project with the Inspire Foundation is a real exercise in participatory design.

The young people have a really active involvement in deciding how the website would work. They used online forums and face to face meetings to discuss everything from what kinds of content the site would need, to how to best group this content so that people could find it.

ActNow specs

They not only *read* the specs, they pored over the wireframes and held workshops. Never before have I walked into my client’s office and found my wireframes stuck up on the wall like this! (Obviously I was so excited I had to capture the moment!)

At every step, the young people were involved in decision making, and were our go-to point when we needed to decide if an idea was going to fly or not. So, even though they didn’t necessarily know what a wiki was, or what and RSS feed was – they took the ideas we suggested and evaluated them and they decided whether it was in or out and how they wanted it to work.

It’s a great way to work, and particularly good when you’ve got such a tough target audience. I don’t think I’d ever want to work on a youth focussed site again without having access to a bunch of people in the target audience to guide what I was doing and to act as a sounding board for my ideas and approaches.

It should be like this for *all* projects… but, in reality, it rarely is. (Unless you’re working exclusively on Intranets, in which case you have no excuse!).

But anyway – ActNow. Launched. Hoorah!

Now what it needs is a vibrant community – which I’m sure it will get if enough young people know about it. So, pass it on.

(Either that or make a cash donation to Inspire ;) )

Thank you!

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Hooray! Google Calendar! (you made my day)

Google Calendar
What a great way to wrap up a four day week (is it just me, or do the short weeks sometimes feel the longest!). Out of nowhere, say hello to Google Calendar.
Even better, it’s a pleasure to use. It does everything I want it to. It’s integrated with Gmail.
I’m in love. And, I hope to never use Outlook ever again. :)
I’ve been playing around with web based calendars for a while now, and they’ve all disappointed me with their interface, their inability to deal with the fact that I’m not in the US, their broken importing of outlook calendars, and other annoyances. So far, Google Calendar has only surprised me with little things it does that I wasn’t expecting. Now, if only I could be pleasantly surprised by seeing Google Maps for Australia!
Image Credit: BorkWeb
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