Searches and Summaries

Written By: Ron Tower

The Web is constantly growing and changing. The key issue for users of the Web is to know what is there that might help them, or inform them, or entertain them, and to find out in a timely fashion without spending all their time looking. There are two main ways to do this, searches and summaries.

The most common way that users today find the information they want on the Web is by doing a search using one of the many search engines such a Google (www.google.com). You enter keywords and the search engine sorts through all the pages that it has indexed and tries to give you the most relevant results. Even with this a search often returns thousands of hits. Also, since new pages are being added every day and many pages are constantly changing to reflect the current news or information, the search results may change over time. And slight changes in the keywords can also result in very different search results. Even with these limitations though, searches often provide the quickest and easiest way to find what you want.

If you think of the Web as one huge, constantly changing book, search is like looking up words in an index and then going to the pages indicated to see if they contain what you are looking for. Another way we find what we want in books is the table of contents. This provides a summary outline of what is in the book. It is hard to imagine a table of contents for the whole Web though. For one thing, the Web is different than a book in that the pages are not intended to be read in sequence. You enter and leave pages on the Web following links.

But there is something like a table of contents for the Web in that it organizes the Web’s contents into a high level summary view, and that is a Web directory. Yahoo provides one of the oldest of these (http://dir.yahoo.com) and there is a public domain Web directory that is available many places including the Google Directory (http://www.google.com/dirhp). A directory is a hierarchy of knowledge categories or subjects with links and descriptions provided under the categories. The general directories are huge themselves, so in turn it is useful to search them.

A variation on this is a personal Web directory or knowledge base. This has the same structure as these large public directories but is more focused on the particular interests of a person or group. Whole subtrees of the personal Web directory can be shared with others. A rather limited version of this is the bookmarks or favorites that we keep in our Web browsers, but the personal Web directory allows for better visualization of the information and adding more related information.

Another type of summary that is becoming very widely used is RSS feeds. These are a list of headlines with summary descriptions. The user can then click on a link to see the details. This is especially useful for sites such as news sites or Web logs where information is changing frequently. But they are by no means limited to that. Individual users can read just the feeds they are interested in using an RSS reader (http://blogspace.com/rss/readers). Web site owners provide these useful summaries in hopes that people will want to see the details and click through to their site.

Another variation on this theme of providing useful summary content in hope that users will click through is the proliferation of free content that can be added to Web sites. For example, a weather site might provide a weather sticker that shows a summary of the weather in a town. This is useful in itself. The users then may be more likely to click through to see details. Much of this is intended for Web site developers (for example, see http://freesticky.com), but it could also be used by individual users with the appropriate tool.

Another useful form of summary is a personal portal such as My Yahoo (http://my.yahoo.com) or My Way (http://my.myway.com). These allow the user to select from a collection of information modules and arrange them in different ways on a page that they can view to get a summary view. These portals are typically restricted to the specific content modules that they provide and are oriented toward a generic audience.

One more form of summary is an alert or vital sign. These provide timely notifications, perhaps using an icon that changes colors, of an important event. This approach has been used for years for network and operations management and is now starting to come into use for individuals.

These examples of summaries all fall within a category of tools called information aggregators. Information aggregators provide a summary view of what information is available and allow the user to go to the information source for the details. At this point these different types of summary tools are not usually well integrated.

The next generation of information aggregators will support much greater integration, a wider variety of information modules, and narrowcasting to more specific information communities. For example, see Personal Watchkeeper (http://www.sugarloafsw.com).

So the two most important tools for getting the most out of the Web are search engines and information aggregators. These provide searches and summaries, which are really the way we have always tried to make the best use of large collections of information. Search engines are well developed and widely used. Information aggregators are coming on fast.

Ron Tower is the President of Sugarloaf Software and is the developer of Personal Watchkeeper, an information aggregator supporting a variety of ways to summarize the Web.


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