NewsSift, First Impressions Matter in Search

I’ve been curious about the Financial Times’ news search service, called NewsSift, because it promises to leverage the substantial amount of metadata about financial news held by the FT for a pseudo semantic search experience. In other words, better targeting and categorization about news stories.

So I fired up the browser and headed on over to NewsSift only to be confronted by a less than obvious user experience. The obligatory keyword search box is up top along with a 6 category boxes for Organization, People, Place, Theme, and Business Topic. As you type the boxes under the keyword search term dynamically change to reflect found elements, which while useful is also not obvious what is happening in the absence of UI cues to guide the user.

I decided to watch the online demo of the service after having determined through several less than fruitful searches that I wasn’t educated on how the service works. The demo is clear and having got the gist of it I gave it another run, this time using the search term “Apple” as was used in the demo video. Here’s what it returned:

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There are some interesting sidebar features, as you can see above, that point to usefulness despite the less than stellar search results displayed above. I am also curious how they differentiate online news from blogs and why news portals should be included at all if they are largely aggregating the other sources, i.e. how is AP via Yahoo Finance different from AP in any other category? At any rate, that news source widget is dynamic and does change according to the search you do. I would have also liked to see the inclusion of wikipedia-like sources as these are often very valuable in the context of search.

Even with the potential for skewing, the sentiment potentially does present a feature largely unavailable in other search services and it is useful, as evidenced by the the search I did on Geithner. What was interesting about this example is that the sentiment on the blogs category largely mapped to the online news source category.

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The NewsSift service shows promise as it attempts to extract key entities and phrases for a better search experience but this thing need more time in the oven before the FT can claim a win. There are many features that are badly needed, like sentiment analysis, but if the search results are noisy then you really can’t assign too much value to the extras.

While I am actually quite positive on NewsSift the fact remains that if they do not deliver better search results the service will be destined to be a follower and not a leader. First impressions matter tremendously in search and no one can claim that within minutes of the first search they do on a newly found service that they haven’t formed an opinion, it’s binary and if you are running a search service there is nothing more important than the accuracy of the results (especially when using a search term that is used in the online demo).

The Long Tail of Search is Much Longer Than Expected

We’re still discovering that the depth of search has yet to be determined, which should provide comfort to those who believe that keyword search is but one part of an eventual landscape that offers multitudes of opportunity for startups. Having said that, the dynamics of mass market brand recognition still exist and it will be increasingly difficult for a search engine to break out without having a strong distribution partner to help them.

Building a new user base for a search service is a tough prospect, taking search to an existing user base much more appealing.

According to Woodard, the long tail of search is in fact far longer than most other reports have assumed. The top 100 search terms account for 5.7% of all search traffic and include keywords like ‘myspace,’ ‘google,’ ‘bank of america,’ and ‘ yahoo mail.’ Those numbers are not unexpected. However, the top 1,000 search terms only account for 10.6% of all search traffic, and even the top 10,000 search terms only drive 18.5% of all search traffic.

[From Hitwise - The Long Tail of Search is Much Longer Than Expected - NYTimes.com]

Cakes and Local Search

Need a cake for a special occasion? Want a one-of-a-kind cake that really stands out? Here in the Bay Area you can go to Studio Cake with nothing more than an idea and you will get something really unique and tasty in return.

The picture below is the birthday cake we had yesterday, my wife gave BethAnn a picture she printed from the Web and a stuffed toy to use as a model, and BethAnn delivered it to our house yesterday morning. Not only is it visually impressive, it tasted fantastic as well. It’s all edible, even the “dirt and rocks” which were of course a big hit with the boys. BethAnn Goldberg applies her unique mix of creative ability and structural engineer training to make anything possible.

Why am I posting this? I like to support people and small businesses in my community and this is one way I can do it in addition to giving them my business. Small business success is critically dependent on word-of-mouth advertising and for local consumers it is not a matter of intention but rather knowledge of local businesses that leads to a transaction.

For all of the advances we have made with online technologies, the fact remains that local context is incredibly lacking. Local search engines from Yahoo and Google are really poor as a consequence of their business model (advertising based) and natural language processing limitations. Search on any category or keyword and I can guarantee you that the most interesting businesses are not listed. Try it yourself, Yahoo Local for “custom cakes” doesn’t list Studio Cake, and neither does Google local.

Review sites like Yelp do marginally better but the weakness in their model has always been a dependency on a small number of people who actually write reviews outside of big categories like travel, hospitality, and restaurants. Again, the search granularity comes into play for categories that are not well defined, such as “one of those jumper things for kids birthday parties.”

We have a long way to go before anyone declares a winner against the venerable yellow pages, but if you live on the Peninsula and need a cake, I got you covered.

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