Flickr Search: Breaks the Mould Too Far

Flickr’s search is flawed: it over-emphasises tags and breaks the golden rule of a search box on each page.

I like Flickr’s innovation. It’s definitely a candidate for the “2.0” world and a big reason for the Yahoo acquisition is probably just so they can rack Flcikr brains as we enter this brave new WWW. If I was willing and able to use the verb “get it” in a sentence, I would have no problem including the Flickr team in that sentence too. Anyway, there’s plenty of valid Flickr praise around (and I’m about to post some more in the next blog entry), but it’s search just doesn’t do it for me.

Tags Ain’t Everything

Sometimes, innovation can go too far. For all the talk about tags and the folksonomy, what happened to basic search? Call me retro and all that, but I happen to like searching for an arbitrary term on a website. Instead, Flickr’s entire search revolves around tags.

To wit, look at the Flickr front page. There’s a “Find a photo of …” form, but it actually searches for matching tags. So you’ll get fairly high relevance, but you’ll miss out on many possible links. Search for “luxurious” and you’ll get just one match. Yet, have a gawk at coolme’s Ipod photo. A comment there says “How luxurious!”. Information there, but can’t be found.

I’m not trying to break into the “folksonomy” debate here. It’s an interesting conversation, but somewhat overhyped for me. What I’m saying here is, even if tags do work and you can make them more relevant with synonyms and spelling corrections and grammar adjustments, you still should allow search on other fields. I also acknowledge that comments can be irrelevant or worse, but they are nevertheless better than nothing and worthwhile using. And it’s not just comments: a flickr search could also incorporate the photo title, description, user comments, and photographer name.

These extra fields could all be made available in a complex “Advanced Search” box, but would be more popular if it was just part of the basic search. By all means, give a high relevance to tags, since they’re a specific item humans entered. But also give some respect to some of the other fields, and use them to help distinguish among photos of the same tag.

Oh-oh, We Lost the Search!

Another big usability oh-oh is the difficulty of finding the search altogether. It’s there on the front page, but not on many others – such as this help page and even the search results page. So I can’t perform two searches in a row! And you can’t search for something while you’re looking at a single photo, which I would have thought would be a fine time to search for something else. Just about every site needs a little search entry box – it’s the best value HTML can buy you per square inch. Not only is it useful, but it’s pretty-well standard web behaviour now, so you’d want a really good reason not to have it.

Searching Does What?

Finally, the search is inconsistent. Sometimes, it searches for tags as on the homepage and the tag page(http://flickr.com/photos/tags/). And sometimes it works more like what I asked for above: searching on fields such as description and title. This seems to happen when you look at all of an individuals photos. But, of course, it’s restricted to that photographer. Perhaps a tag search would give no results in many cases.

Music in Speech Podcasts

Lasse comments on podcast music:

The Vision Thing and Software As She’s Developed so far represent the majority of my experience with podcasts. I have to ask, what’s with the corny intros and loud music? Otherwise, I love being able to “just listen” while cooking or otherwise spacing out a bit. (emphasis mine.)

Since I’m playing a track from the Creative Commons Wired CD that I’ve heard on other podcasts, I have to concede “corny” is pretty accurate. On my TODO list is to locate a good, original, track. But priority isn’t too high.

I think a little lead-in/fade-out track is useful to establish identity. (Please excuse complete ignorance of technical terms.) Websites and blogs can have flashy logos, colour schemes, layouts to help readers distinguish them from the other 8 million offerings. Podcasts can’t do that — I can’t guarantee that anyone listening to my podcast will ever see my website (that there are any listeners at all is possibly evidence some people have not yet discovered the CSS theme in here). As the podcast space gets crowded, unique theme music or “audicons”/”earcons” will be even more important than on radio today.

As for entire songs in the middle or at the end, I’m with Lasse there. One thing I don’t much like about talkback radio is when they suddenly introduce a song. Why does that happen, and is it relevant to podcasting? I’m guessing songs occur during radio because:

  • The presenter needs a break. But radio is often live; podcasts are never live, so the presenter can just press pause instead.
  • The listener needs a break. Even in radio, this is very coarse-grained reasoning. Perhaps a few people can take a break, but most probably don’t, or in any event aren’t in a position to schedule breaks based on the presenter’s timing. In podcasting, the few who do can always press pause, or rewind a few minutes when they want to resume listening.

Now I’ve heard people say “with podcasts, you can just fast-forward the music”. But isn’t a big benefit of podcasting that you can do other things. Lasse notes that he likes listening while cooking, and others have mentioned listening to podcasts while driving, gyming, cleaning. You don’t want to interrupt all that to fast-forward. Furthermore, for those podcasts that are running advertisement slots, the music only adds to the non-core factor (although hopefully the ad slots are new and relevant).

I do like listening to music, but if I want to do that, I’ll happily switch to a music podcast. (You can play actual music on an ipod? What next?) To me, entire songs just seem out of place in the middle of a podcast on business or current affairs or whatever..

As a side note, there’s a small issue with Creative Commons licenses that doesn’t help the situation. Many, or perhaps all, of the licenses on garageband.com, and many elsewhere, require playback in their original form. I can see why artists request that, but unfortunately it rules them out of being used for title tracks, or having samples used to introduce a segment. Podcasters could mail for permission, but the objective of CC is to remove the need for explicit communication of that nature. I hope that sites like garageband will do what they can to inform artists about the implications of the CC options and make the technology easy for artists to nominate their tracks for sampling if they wish to do so.

Movie Reviews: The Google Semantic Web

Google’s Movie portal is an early version of an application area which will expand rapidly in the next few years: portals which extract meaning from the web.

I’m going to be the 2000th blogger today to mention a new Google feature. This time, the “movie:” search which links to a bunch of movie reviews.

This is less about movies and more about the semantic web. Listen to Bill Gross in a recent IT Conversations podcast talk about Snap’s features and you’ll realise there’s a lot more that can be done to basic search. For instance, here’s Snap’s MP3 Players Search Results. There is a nice comparison table which has (apparently) been automatically extracted from the web at large.

I expect this is where google wants to head. Go beyond relevance-based text search and extract out the meaning from all these websites into a useful portal of information. Movies for now, but could be cars or houses in a year’s time. Many comparison shopping sites have tried to do this, but it never quite works and is easily gamed. Google knows how to present data cleanly and has plenty of experience in not being gamed.

Clay Shirkey wrote some time ago about the semantic web, arguing that sophisticated protocols, well, won’t really do very much. There is a good argument that the information will work fine in fairly free form, with intelligent systems like Google able to piece together some meaning. A memorable quote from Clay’s article:

Dodgson’s syllogisms actually demonstrate the limitations of the form, a pattern that could be called “proof of no concept”, where the absurdity of an illustrative example undermines the point being made. So it is with the Semantic Web. Consider the following, from the W3C’s own site:
Q: How do you buy a book over the Semantic Web?
A: You browse/query until you find a suitable offer to sell the book you want. You add information to the Semantic Web saying that you accept the offer and giving details (your name, shipping address, credit card information, etc). Of course you add it (1) with access control so only you and seller can see it, and (2) you store it in a place where the seller can easily get it, perhaps the seller’s own server, (3) you notify the seller about it. You wait or query for confirmation that the seller has received your acceptance, and perhaps (later) for shipping information, etc. [http://www.w3.org/2002/03/semweb/]

One doubts Jeff Bezos is losing sleep.

3 points, Shirky.

Try To Not Be Dell

I just caught Des Paroz, Acer Australia CTO, on a recent G’day World podcast. Overall, it gives a good insight into the issues a large vendor like Acer deals with.

They touched on Dell (37:30 in).

Cameron: The big … E-Business case study for the last 5 or 6 years has always been Dell and their whole just-in-time model … Is (Dell) still seen as being the epitome of just-in-time supply chain engineering, or has the rest of the market caught up?

Des: First of all, Dell are innovators in … what they do … I think one of the things we try to do is to not be Dell …

Some good points here. Firstly, every generation seems to have its heroic companies, and there will be plenty of MBA graduates immersed in The Way Of Dell. Insofaras their business model and its execution packs a lot of lessons, that’s a good thing. And I’m not going to bemoan its existence, because it has done a lot to drop costs, keep the specs flying alone, and prove the power of IT when applied judiciously and comprehensively throughout an organisation.

It’s likely, though, that many companies will be hurt trying to imitate Dell’s strategy too closely. Its model may not require industry dominance of monopolistic proportions, but it does rely on huge economies of scale. Furthermore, there are huge markets they can’t cater for. Just about every Apple user, for starters. Those are people for whom the 25% off doesn’t mean very much. And, on a personal note, there are those who revere support, and realise that, for all its Fortune 500 prestige, Dell can’t help individuals, and, I suspect, small businesses. Having spent too much time on the other end of “support” calls to Dell’s offshore centre, I rest my case.

Of course, who cares? Dell probably doesn’t – it’s doing fine across the board. The companies that must care are those like Acer. And, those in other industries, where there will no doubt be more and more companies aiming to be The Dell (or The Walmart) of fruit-juice/lawnmowers/hairdressing salons. As the race to be The Dell continues, it will serve many companies well to do as Acer does, and strive to Not Be Dell.

Calculator Buttons Are So Retro

And while I’m on calculators, Chris Stevenson has been writing about the inconsistencies of calculators. The inconsistency in different PC-based calculators is interesting, but I find it even more interesting that all these calculators exist at all. They are 1975 devices simulated in their 2-dimensional glory on 2005 monitors.

I assume the main reason they are still used is familiarity, availability (every new GUI comes with one) and lack of any well-known substitutes. Still, the idea of mouse-clicking on buttons appeals about as much as trying to turn a dial on a funky skinz-based MP3 player. You can use a keyboard too, but then why show the numeric buttons at all? I’d rather use a text-based interface like google, where you can easily backtrack and clear up any ambiguity with

Of course, a small enhancement would be to make it dynamic, so you can see the current result as you type. It could even be done over the web, via Javascript or some intelligent networking as demonstrated by Google Suggest.

Actually, a “calculator” would be nice in a desktop toolbar. Type the problem in the textbox, see the answer beside it. It would need some way to pop up for longer queries (TSR’s coming back, baby!), but would work quite nicely in the typical case. That would work for other queries too.

Google Calculator: Sign Of Things to Come?

Russel Beattie points to the emergence of ubiquitous search and asks if it’s a trend towards the AI dream of asking the computer any question you like. It’s a powerful idea and it would seem to be the way google has generally been heading … for instance:

I guess Ask Jeeves also had this idea, but never (yet) really carried it out. Given enough computational power, there is a lot more search engines could do to interpret what sort of information is being sought. An IT Conversations podcast a couple of months ago had the founder of Snap explaining how you could search for a product like “Digital Camera” and receive a table comparing product specs.

Printing and the Web

There’s lots of talk about “web 2.0” and indeed many good things are coming on. But there also many anticipated web enhancements which are conspicuous by their absence. I’m talking about things I found bothersome in the mid-1990s, things I had assumed would be fixed around the corner. Yet, they just don’t seem to have emerged and it looks like web developers are stuck with them for a long time to come. Examples include HTML in general, the stateless nature of HTTP in general, and the shrine of inconsistent obfuscation that is javascript. Pretty fundamental stuff, huh? Anyway, my point here is printing.

We’ve gone from visions of the paperless office to printing like never before to the current situation: a decline in printing. At least that’s my guess. And presumably it’s thanks to email, PDAs, SMS messaging, bigger screens, and better collaborative tools such as document annotation and wikis. Yet, the decline in printing will be gradual and long. Paper still has many benefits: superior reading experience for many, legal relevance, safeguard for electronic storage.

So as long as we expect printing to be around for a while, let’s make printing the web a worthwhile experience. At present, there’s HTML, which is difficult to print. And there’s PDFs, which are designed for printing, but are difficult to read. I’m not going to be Mr. SaveTheWorld and propose an uber-format … I’m just going to suggest a few incremental improvements that would make life easier…

Browsers should print HTML more gracefully: * Print hyperlink URLs Since reading occurs offline, print the linked URL beside any hyperlink. Like comments on slashdot do (although, by default, they only show the domain). * Print what I can see. Many times, the browser is incapable of just printing what I can see. Thanks to funny javascript issues or attempts to reload dynamic pages, it just prints a blank page or a few lines. Not good enough. If you can display it on the screen, you can send it to the printer. * Handle frames properly. Yeah, they’re evil, but they’re a fact of HTML life, and indeed a site like bloglines shows how they can actually be very useful. All browsers should let me right-click inside a frame and allow me to print in that frame. Furthermore, when I try to print from the menu or toolbar, they should produce a thumbnail of the whole page, allowing me to visually select one or more frames for printing. (Frames are another of those that just won’t go away … frames had already been buried by the tech elite in the late 90s, who’d have thought a frame-based site like bloglines would be a hot acquisition for 2005?). * Provide better previews. Come on, you’re about to print the thing! it can’t be that hard to tell me how it will look or how many pages it will be. * Don’t crash when i’m trying to print a moderately sized file This one’s firefox-specific.

Browsers should render PDF more gracefully. Since PDF actually achieves – or bypasses the above, it could be a useful format for distribution. However, browsers just don’t handle it very well, even when Acrobat is embedded into the browser.

I have just the one big suggestion here: stop dealing with PDFs using plugins, and instead render them as HTML. Google has been converting PDFs quite effectively for about five years now, and many tools do too. I’m sure I’m not alone when I click on the Google HTML version rather than the PDF version after performing a search. If Google can convert every PDF in the universe, the browser should be able to do it for a single document.

PDFs, with their discrete pages are very difficult to browse up and down. The font size is rarely anything to do with the browser’s normal HTML size. All the browser tools you’ve come to know and love are either gone or mutated. Want to find some text in a PDF document? You’ll have to do it the Acrobat way, not the browser way. And you can forget about all your browser-specific plugins, like language translation and bookmarklets. They’d be just as useful on PDF content, but it’s not happening.

So the solution is simple: browsers should be able to treat PDFs as HTML. The Acrobat plugin can still be used for printing, so the PDF document could actually provide the best of both worlds. But for reading in a browser, HTML wins every time. And as the IText (Java PDF framework) FAQ notes, its perfectly within Adobe’s conditions to create PDF tools. In any event, if Google can put converted PDFs on the web, what’s to stop a browser from doing likewise?

File Dialogs for the 21st Century

File dialogs: you use them to open and save files all the time and you don’t think about them much. But if you did think about them, you’d have to conclude they are dinosaurs of the 80s roaming around in the 21st century.

Here’s what the File Dialog with the mostest would have: * Searchable – Based on the same indexing technology used by the desktop searches, let me just type the file name in. It’s not rocket science! * Unix-like tab completion. As I type the name and use bash to complete, update the directory view. * Bookmarks/favourites feature. Support three categories: (a) read-only bookmarks containing usual suspects such as my home directory, (b) personal bookmarks which I can set for all applications (e.g. “home/research” “/opt/projects”), (c) bookmarks specific to this application. * History feature: Remember the last N files I’ve accessed.

See, google’s dominance has led to a search-crazy world. And good thing, too. Browsing through a hierarchy worked when hard drives contained a few hundred documents. But it’s becoming a little challenging in a world where the Library of Congress will soon fit in your pocket. So Google Desktop and a host of competitors now let you pinpoint files on your hard drive in a second.

But how about the file dialog? Same old, same old. This is particularly noticeable in Linux, where there is a proliferation of dialogs. Using a gtk-based app? Here’s the gtk dialog. KDE? KDE dialog. Java? Java dialog. (Maybe.) Even when the dialog is the same – as in Windows – it just plain sucks!

As a related point, how long until the desktop search tools are provided as standard components, capable of being integrated into such controls as file dialogs?

“Amazon Inside”: Real Uses of the Amazon API

The Amazon API has its uses (plaudits Smart Mobs).

As web legend Philip Greenspun taught me, great sites can be made by pulling in content from other sites. So the idea of web services holds a lot of promise. Google and Amazon APIs have been out a couple of years already, and there isn’t much obvious effect. So it’s nice to see a few real applications, and I’m sure there’ll be plenty more to come in Web 2.0.

The link contains an image rather than text, so here are the actual sites using the APIs: