Winter holidays and finally a little bit of time to dive into research and writing. After giving a talk at the Deep Search conference in Vienna last month (videos available here), I’ve been working on the paper for the conference book, which should come out sometime next year. The question is still “democratizing search” and the subject is really growing on me, especially since I started to read more on political theory and the different interpretations of democracy that are out there. But more on that some other time.

One of the vectors of making search more productive in the framework of liberal democracy is to think about search not merely as the fasted way to get from a query to a Web page, but to think about how modern technologies might help in providing an overview on the complex landscape of a topic. I have always thought that clusty – a metasearcher that takes results from Live, Ask, DMOZ, and other sources and organizes them in thematic clusters – does a really good job in that respect. If you search for “globalisation”, the first ten clusters are: Economic, Research, Resources, Anti-globalisation, Definition, Democracy, Management, Impact, Economist-Economics, Human. Clicking on a cluster will bring you the results that clusty’s algorithms judge as pertinent for the term in question. Very often, just looking on the clusters gives you a really good idea of what the topic is about and instead of just homing in on the first result, the search process itself might have taught you something.

I’ve been playing around with Yahoo BOSS for one of the programming classes I teach and I’ve come up with a simple application that follows a similar principle. TermCloud Search (edit: I really would like to work on this some more and the name SearchCloud was already taken, so I changed it…) is a small browser-based app that uses the “keyterms” (a list of keywords the system provides you with for every URL found) feature of Yahoo BOSS to generate a tagcloud for every search you make. It takes 250 results and lets the user navigate these results by clicking on a keyword. The whole thing is really just a quick hack but it shows how easy it is to add such “overview” features to Web search. Just try querying “globalisation” and look at the cloud – although it’s just extracted keywords, a representation of the topic and its complexity does emerge at least somewhat.

I’ll certainly explore this line of experimentation over the next months, jQuery is making the whole API thing really fun, so stay tuned. For the moment I’m kind of fascinated by the possibilities and by imagining search as a pedagogical process, not just a somewhat inconvenient stage in accessing content that has to be speeded up by personalization and such. Search can become in itself a knowledge producing (not just knowledge finding) activity by which we may explore a subject on a more general level.

And now I’ve got an article to finish…

Post filed under algorithms, search engines, society oriented design, softwareproject.


  1. It’s interesting to see the difference between the search clouds for “globalisation” and “globalization”.

  2. yeah, it might even be worth the while to add a comparison feature between two terms that would highlight the convergences and pointed differences – we’ll see…

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