Although they’ve been overshadowed recently by the ownership and investment battles at Microsoft and Yahoo!, both companies have been introducing some intriguing new technologies. Pursuing new search opportunities in the social space, Microsoft Research has launched SearchTogether (http://research.microsoft.com/searchtogether), a fascinating exploration of ways to enable collaborative searching. The beta version of SearchTogether lets users work together on a search process, share the work, and explore results simultaneously.
Once installed, the SearchTogether browser add-on enables you to designate a group of other users with whom you can share results, divide the search labor, and add comments and ratings to specific webpages. Because each participant’s searches, comments, and ratings are recorded, the group can work together in real time or sequentially at different times.
If at first this seems disconnected with the typical workday for an information professional, read Microsoft’s write-up of SearchTogether (http://research.microsoft.com/displayArticle.aspx?0rc=n&id=2020) and consider how similar the purpose may be to what many information professionals handle daily in reference and instructional transactions. We collaborate on searches in person, on the phone, and via a variety of online communication methods. SearchTogether users have a new way to collaborate online. One of the goals described for SearchTogether is that it "also can promote search learning, in which someone with rudimentary search skills can learn how to formulate more effective search queries by working with a person with more expertise."
Meredith Ringel Morris, Microsoft’s lead researcher for SearchTogether, notes that "over 50 percent of people" said they had collaborated on a web search. When asked if they "ever stood behind someone while they searched the Web and suggested keywords that they should try," nearly 90 percent had collaborated in searching.
At this early stage as a beta program, SearchTogether will only work under specific technical and social requirements:
- The searcher must use Internet Explorer 7.
- He or she must also install the plug-in.
- The searcher must have a Windows Live Messenger account.
- All collaborators must also install the plug-in.
- All collaborators must have a Windows Live Messenger account.
- All collaborators must be Contacts (i.e., buddies) with each other.
These requirements unfortunately limit the potential SearchTogether audience.
Once all the technical requirements and installations have been satisfied and a group of people have all joined up in Windows Live Messenger and added each other as contacts, one person needs to establish a specific search session by clicking the Action button and then Create a New Session. Once it has been created and contacts have been invited to join, the other users will need to "join" that session next time they log in.
SearchTogether has a wide variety of collaboration features. It includes three types of searches, group search histories, page-level rating and commenting, automatically generated shared summaries, peek-and-follow browsing, and integrated chat. More details on each of these features can be found at the SearchTogether tutorial at http://research.microsoft.com/searchtogether/tutorial.html.
The three search types are standard (the default), split searching, and multi-engine search. The latter two are both work-sharing techniques that only work when two or more users are logged in at the same time. With split searching, a query is sent to that user’s default search engine (and there are three such choices: Google, Yahoo!, and Live Search) and retrieves a set of the top results. The results are divided among the group members so that each user gets his or her own subset to evaluate. A multi-engine search retrieves results from each of the three search engines and again assigns them to individuals in the group, so one may get the Live results and another the Google set.
The search histories of the group are saved. Each member of the group has listings of their searches under the Contacts tab. Icons next to the query identify which of the three search types it was. The search results from any search in the history are accessible by clicking on that search.
The ratings and comments are applied to specific pages, whether of search results or individual pages from the results. The comments and ratings are grouped by URL under the Summary tab, and each comment or rating is tied to a specific user. Morris describes the importance of the rating and comment features: "When you give ratings or comments to a Web page, those get added to the summary of your collaborative search session. That summary is the product of the group’s collaboration. It’s a list of all the best content that people in the group have found, who found it, and what they thought about it. That’s the sort of thing you would synthesize to create your report or make your purchasing decision."
Peek-and-follow browsing must be enabled by each user. When enabled, it allows co-browsing. Users can click the eyeglasses icon next to a user’s name to view the same page that is being viewed by that person. The peek function loads just a single, current page. The follow function, available from the footprint icon next to a user’s name, will let you see the current page and other subsequent pages that the user views.
The integrated chat feature is available at the bottom of the screen and lets multiple users online at the same time easily chat with each other. If other users are not online at the same time, you can still leave a message that someone else can reply to later, since a transcript is kept of the messages.
An email feature is available to send a record to one or more participants so that users do not necessarily need to log in to view a record of all the comments and sites seen. Choose Action and then Email Session Summary.
One missing feature in this version is that there is no ability to edit or delete comments. Enter a comment about the wrong webpage by mistake, and it is stuck in the summary permanently. Nor can searches, chat postings, or ratings be deleted or edited.
Future of Collaborative Search
Earlier versions of Internet Explorer (5 and 6) had a "discuss" button that is still available in some version 7 installations (under View/Explorer Bar/Discuss). It was used for group collaboration on Office documents and webpages but had infrequent enough usage that it is no longer promoted much. Plenty of others are working on similar social searching products including Yoople!, Delver, and Wikia Search. One sign that other major search engines are exploring this space comes from Joe Kraus, director of product management at Google, who said in his "Three Trends in Social Networking" talk at the Supernova 2008 conference (www.viddler.com/explore/Raferx2/videos/20) that "the nature of information discovery is changing … from a solitary activity to a social one." While Google may be working on something similar, Microsoft Research’s SearchTogether is available now and may well offer a technology preview of what types of future collaborative searching may start to be incorporated into search and social networking sites.