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Sphere: A New Approach to Blog Search

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The blogosphere continues to both fascinate and frustrate, because great content is out there, but it's often drowned in a sea of garbage. Newly launched Sphere aims to change that with a different approach to blog search.

Blog search has yet to rise to the quality of web search, in large part because the blogopshere is volatile and many of the ranking metrics that work well with web content break down when applied to blog postings. Other approaches rely on tags to identify relevant content—and we're highly skeptical about tagging here at Search Engine Watch.

Sphere's creators are veterans of several internet startups who've applied the lessons they've learned from previous companies (Oddpost, Wordpress and others) to build a powerful, but easy-to-use blog search engine, with a number of interesting twists.

"Once you've discovered good blog content it's like a drug," said Tony Conrad, Sphere CEO.

Sphere takes a new approach to blog search, looking at three critical variables to understand both individual blog posts and the nature of the blog they appear on. As with web search, Sphere attempts to understand link structures—who's linking to whom, and what are the quality of the links. Crucial to this analysis is an attempt to understand who's starting or leading discussions in contrast to those bloggers who are simply commenting on existing conversations.

Sphere also looks at meta data—things like posting frequency, lengths of postings, and other non-keyword related data.

And finally, Sphere's algorithm content does some heavy lifting with semantic analysis of blog postings. "It's the hard part, and most important piece of the secret sauce," said Sphere co-founder Steve Nieker. Sphere doesn't use tags in its ranking of blog posts, even if they exist.

So far, I've been impressed with the results of my tests of the new service.

Like most blog search services, Sphere returns results ranked either by relevance or time. But in addition to providing links to blog postings that contain your keywords, Sphere attempts to locate the most authoritative voices in the blogosphere writing about a specific topic.

"Part of the reason people do blog search is because they want to discover blogs, not just posts," said Nieker.

To help in this quest, results include both title and abstract from blog posts, but also include a link to a "profile" of the blog, which offers additional information including stats like average posts per week, average length of posts, three recent inbound and outbound links, and so on. This can help you get an immediate sense of how active the bloggers is on his particular topic, and how often his or her posts are cited in the blogosphere.

Results can be sorted by date or relevance, with posts from the last week being shown by default. A drop-down menu allows you to see posts from the last four months, or limited to the last day, 12 hours or hour. You can also select a custom range, which opens up a histogram that plots activity of your search terms in the blogosphere, with sliders that allow you to limit posts to any period over the past four months.

A link to the right of results lets you see "featured blogs" related to your search terms. "What we're trying to do here is to find things on a topic level and find people that consistently blog on them," said Conrad. Clicking this link displays a list of ten blogs using a different algorithm that looks for consistency of topics over time.

Another link offers "related media" to your search term. Results here include photos coming from Webshots, books (via an API interface that taps into Amazon), podcasts found using an API into Yahoo's podcast search, and news, with stories picked up by Sphere's crawling 52 different news web sites.

Power searchers will appreciate Sphere's advanced searching commands. While there's no advanced search form, you can use Boolean operators in your query, and even nest them using parentheses. Sphere also understands quoted phrases, and allows you to exclude terms with the minus (-) sign.

Sphere also has three field operators that can be very useful in locating content from your favorite blog or bloggers. These are "title," which limits a search to just the title of blog posts, "blog," which restricts your search to a specific blog, or "site," a bit broader filter that's useful for sites with multiple blogs such as weblogs inc.

For more information on using Sphere's advanced operators, see the tips page.

Sphere's approach to blog search is unlike any other I've yet seen. It's a clean, easy-to-use service that usually offers good results uncluttered by the blogorrhea that's so often surfaced in other blog search engines. The service is still in beta, so there are occasional glitches, but overall, it's a good start and can only get better.

Postscript: Sphere had planned to launch today, but as of this writing the home page is displaying the following message: "We're still in a limited private beta release and have temporarily stopped issuing new passwords because there is more demand than our feeble back end can handle."

If you can't access Sphere when you read this, check back later this week when the full production servers are in operation.

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