The developers over at Wikia Search should be proud. After creating their own search engine that lets searchers rate, edit, comment, and delete results, Wikia Search ended up getting panned by several reviewers. But now Google has paid it the ultimate compliment by not only duplicating some of its capabilities but also by naming its new product with a very similar, and potentially confusing name: Google SearchWiki. (See the announcement in the Official Google Blog: http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2008/11/searchwiki-make-search-your-own.html.) With the new SearchWiki, searchers can elevate and delete results, add new results, and post comments. As Johanna Wright, director of product management at Google describes it, "It’s a new way to empower users. You can remember answers to repeat queries. It lets you add your personal touch to our algorithms."
Of course, Google’s version is not a wiki. Nor will many Google users even see it. The Google SearchWiki automatically turns on only for searchers who have logged in to Google. You don’t have a Google account? Then you will not see any sign of SearchWiki. For those logged in to Gmail, iGoogle, Google Docs, or any other Google account, SearchWiki is not only turned on by default, but (as many tech bloggers are complaining) as of yet there is no Google-supplied way to turn off SearchWiki short of logging out of your Google account. But what does SearchWiki do for searchers?
It is only after logging in and then running a search that any sign of SearchWiki appears. Look to the right of the title of a result to see two light grey icons: an up arrow and an "x" in a box. The x in the box is used to delete a result from your list. Clicking the up arrow puts that result at the top of the list. If you are logged in to the same account and run that same search, the elevated result will still be at the top. If you elevate more than one, each of the newest promoted results will place below the previously elevated ones. To get a new result into first place, click the up arrow again. Note however that clicking the down arrow does not move the elevated record down one result. Instead, it puts it back at its original location.
SearchWiki also places another small, grey speech bubble icon right after the "Cached - Similar pages" links at the bottom of the record. Click the speech bubble to get an option to leave a note or comment about the result. While Google describes the comments as "a great way to save and recall any thoughts you had or notes you took about a particular page," the button you click to post a note says "Make a public comment." So which is it? It’s both, in some ways. Once you have made a comment, you should see that comment at the bottom of that result on any search that displays that record. At this point, you do not see comments that others have made or any changes in ranking, unless you click on one of the SearchWiki links at the very bottom of the search results page.
Four new options show up in this area: "Add a result," "See all my SearchWiki notes," "See all notes for this SearchWiki," and "Learn more." Clicking the third choice, "See all notes for this SearchWiki," lets you see some of the activity that others have added for the exact same search. If no one else has left comments, deleted a hit, or promoted a result, Google says, "Nobody has made any edits to the results for" the search query. Most searches will show that. But if someone has made a change, information about the change may be displayed. Try a search for "seo" or "google," scroll to the bottom, and then click the "See all notes …" link to see some examples of how many people have promoted, deleted, and commented on a result. For example, on the search "google," more than 300 users have deleted www.google.com from their results list! More than 900 comments have been made on that result, but clicking the link to display those only shows ten, with such informative commentary as "Woot," "Testing," and "What is it?"
The other bottom links provide additional information and capabilities. The "Add a result" link lets a searcher add a specific URL to the search results so that the searcher will also see that result the next time the exact same search is done. The added page does not need to contain the search terms. The "See all my SearchWiki notes" is a history of your SearchWiki activity, showing searches, comments, promotions, and deletions.
Private or Public?
The last of the bottom links, "Learn More" (www.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?answer=115764), explains SearchWiki in brief and has another "Learn More" link which expands the page with many more questions and answer including, "Can others see my rankings, deletions, and notes?" In other words, how private is this information? The current response is "The SearchWiki notes page that summarizes your rankings, deletions, and notes can be viewed only by you." While that is accurate to a point, it only partially answers this question, since other users can view whether or not SearchWiki activity has occurred for a specific search and what that activity is.
The additions, deletions, and promotions only display as aggregate numbers. You can see how many users have promoted or deleted but not who those users are. The number of comments made is shown, but not all comments are visible to other users. Yet for those that are, the display includes the poster’s Google account nickname (if used or just "searcher" otherwise) and the search query (if it differs from the one you used).
So while it may be possible that someone’s nickname and search query could possibly give clues about an individual’s identity, in general, SearchWiki is relatively private. In addition, not all activity is necessarily viewable. Using three separate accounts to comment, promote, and delete results for a search on "allergy treatment," I found that all of my activity and comments were not viewable from the other accounts.
This is a newly released Google product, still in its first few weeks of public availability. Unlike many previous major Google product launches, it is not labeled as being in beta. However, it is acting very much like a beta product with plenty of performance and consistency issues. After it first launched, it went down for several hours. Later, some logged-in users could use it while others could not. The delete functionality was also broken for awhile. Even now in its second week, the SearchWiki icons and capabilities do not always appear. Simply refreshing the browser display can sometimes bring it back.
After initially displaying comments by default, SearchWiki quickly changed to make them only viewable when clicking that bottom link. It seems likely that more tweaks and changes will continue to occur. Despite frequent calls for an opt-out option, there are no plans to allow that at this time, according to an interview (http://searchengineland.com/qa-with-google-on-searchwiki-dont-expect-an-opt-out-soon-15599.php) with SearchWiki product manager Cedric Dupont who says that "While users don’t have the option of turning off SearchWiki, they do have the option not to use the feature. By turning off the feature entirely, people will never get used to the new offering or see how it might be useful to them. We encourage people to try it out." For those who do not wish to log out, there is a Firefox Greasemonkey script (http://userscripts.org/scripts/source/37315.user.js) that can be used to disable SearchWiki.
In what other directions might SearchWiki grow? Comments are not yet searchable. Searchers can browse their own activity to find previous comments they made or to browse a few comments from others. However, Google has intimated that it may well create a way to browse all the comments. At this point Google says the overwhelming majority of use is on the "See all my SearchWiki notes" page rather than the "All SearchWiki edits page."
Designed for Whom?
So who will want to use these new features? As Brennon Slattery wrote in PC World (www.pcworld.com/businesscenter/article/154317/google_searchwiki_addition_fails_to_wow.html) about the add URL option, "How does that make sense? If you’re searching for something, you shouldn’t already know the destination URL, and if you do, why are you searching? And if you’re continuously seeking the same exact thing, why not just bookmark the site?" Others have suggested that this is primarily a way for Google to gather more searcher behavior information to better improve their relevance ranking and search in general or, from the more suspicious, to gather yet more data about individuals.
For information professionals, SearchWiki may offer other possibilities. Mary Ellen Bates notes in her blog (http://maryellenbates.typepad.com/librarian_of_fortune/2008/12/official-google-blog-searchwiki-make-search-your-own.html), "The biggest drawback I can see is that info pros very seldom conduct the same search twice … and even if we do, we’re often looking for a different aspect of the idea." Perhaps, if SearchWiki gains significant traction and a large userbase, and if all comments can be seen, browsed, or searched, SearchWiki could become an intriguing database of searcher behavior and commentary. Even in its existing state, searchers can try to use it to find out what searches get edited and which do not. However it develops, Google’s SearchWiki will be an interesting experiment to continue watching.