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Yahoo Integrates Personal & Social Search with MyWeb 2.0

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Now you can search both your own "personal web" and pages saved by members of a trusted community of contacts with Yahoo's just-launched MyWeb 2.0.

When Yahoo released MyWeb 1.0 last April, the company took its first steps toward personalizing web search for individual users. MyWeb 1.0 allows you to save copies of web pages in a personal cache, block pages or entire sites you find objectionable or irrelevant from appearing in search results, and limit your searches to just the content saved in your personal web.

With the release of MyWeb 2.0, Yahoo has added an extensive array of new features focused on community-based searching and sharing of information. "It basically enables people to tap into each other's personal web by searching their trust network of friends," said Eckart Walther, vice president, product management, Yahoo.

A major component of MyWeb 2.0 is the addition of "tagging," the ability to add descriptive keywords and annotations to pages you save. If tagging sounds suspiciously like a new way of saying "metadata" to you, you're absolutely correct. The idea behind tagging is to add structure that helps improve search results. In practice, tagging has problems that may or may not make it useful for your own searching. I'll talk about these issues in more detail below.

Yahoo has also developed a new relevance algorithm called "MyRank" for MyWeb 2.0. "It's a new search engine that we wrote that can search across thousands of nodes and millions of pages in a trust network," said Walther. Unlike PageRank and other link analysis techniques used by general-purpose search engines, MyRank is designed to ferret out clues to relevance based on the pages you and your community have saved to MyWeb 2.0.

In practice, this means your search results with MyWeb 2.0 will be very different than those you get with Yahoo, Google or any other major engine. It also means that your search results will change over time, as your personal web and those of your community expand. Walther says these changes should lead to more relevant results—but that depends largely on the "quality" of members of your community and the web pages they choose to add to your communal web.

Yahoo is continuing with its recent trend toward making its services available to anyone wanting to create their own applications via open application programming interfaces (API). These are available at . The APIs are available in XML and RDF at http://developer.yahoo.net, enable third parties and researchers to build applications that use the semantic data generated by the My Web community.

Getting Started with MyWeb 2.0

MyWeb 2.0 is a beta product from Yahoo, which "means that we're still actively developing and improving it with more useful features," according to the MyWeb 2.0 FAQ page. It's also a "limited beta" meaning it's available on a first-come, first-serve basis, so don't dally if you want to try it.

To start using it, you need to activate the service. This involves creating a free Yahoo account if you don't have one. You can also jump-start the process of creating your own personal web by importing your bookmarks. If you're already using MyWeb 1.0, all of your saved pages will be available in MyWeb 2.0.

The next step is one that may be confusing at first. You need to invite others to join your community, and they have to accept your invitation. This in itself is easy enough—simply send them an invitation using the "invite contacts" link. When they accept your invitation, they will appear in your "My Contacts" list.

What can be confusing is that each member of your community may have other people in their contacts list that aren't part of your community. They are part of the overall user base of MyWeb 2.0, but if they haven't explicitly agreed to join your community they won't appear there. If you want them to join, invite them.

MyWeb 2.0 stores all of your information on Yahoo servers, so it is accessible from any web connected computer. As all of your personal information is stored with Yahoo, you should familiarize yourself with Yahoo's privacy policy before using the service.

Using MyWeb 2.0

To start using MyWeb 2.0 after you've activated your access, simply run a search. You'll see a "save" link next to each search result;click this and a pop-up box appears that allows you to tag the page. Yahoo automatically fills in the title of the page, but you can change this. You can also add a note describing why you like the page, and add tags.

For many pages, you'll see links for suggested tags. Click to use these, or type your own tags. As you type, an autosuggest feature shows tags that others have used. Feel free to use these or create your own tags, if they're more relevant for you. Separate multiple tags with commas. The last step in saving a page is to set access to the page to you, your community or to everyone using MyWeb 2.0.

When you save the page, another pop-up appears confirming the save, offering the ability to see other pages My Web users have saved with the tags you just used. This is a very powerful tool in its own right, helping you locate related content saved by others.

Searching MyWeb 2.0 is straightforward. The MyWeb 2.0 home page features a search form at the top of the page, allowing you to search MyWeb or the entire web. Beneath this is a list of up ten recently saved pages in your web and your community's web.

MyWeb 2.0 search results look similar to regular Yahoo web search results with a few extra bits of information. A very powerful feature provides three top-level "views" that allow you to view results in a more granular fashion. These views are "Pages," "Tags," and "Community," and are accessed by tabs at the top of any search result page.

The Pages view lets you view results that only you have saved, that your community has saved, or that all MyWeb 2.0 users have saved. On the left side is a list of tags used to describe pages in search results, ordered by popularity. Clicking on any of these links filters results to show pages with that particular tag.

Individual search results display several bits of information. Just like regular search results, the title of a page is also a link to display that page. Remember, though, that the person who saved the page can change the title to be anything they want—it may be totally different than the actual title of the web page.

Beneath the title you'll see who shared the result, the note (if any) they made about the page, the tags that are associated with the page, the URL of the page, and a link to save the page to your own personal web. There are also links to email the page or send it via instant messenger to another user.

Results are displayed by the date they were saved, with the most recently saved pages listed first. Links at the top of results allows you to resort by title, URL or popularity.

The Tags view displays all of the tags that you, your community of all MyWeb 2.0 users have created and are using to annotate content. The default "tag map" is an alphabetical list that shows frequently used tags in larger font sizes. You can also sort this map in a more traditional A-Z list, by date or popularity.

Finally, the Contacts tab provides information about the members of your MyWeb 2.0 community.

One of the nicest features of MyWeb 2.0 is that just about everything is cross-linked, allowing you to re-sort and browse in a myriad of ways. For example, if you see that a particular member of your community has saved a lot of pages you find interesting, click on the link for the person. This will bring up a list of all the pages that they've saved and shared with the community. You can also explore tags this way, often leading to serendipitous discoveries you probably wouldn't have made otherwise.

The Tagging Issue

Tagging is currently a hot topic—Yahoo's Walther says that the principal reason Yahoo bought Flickr was to acquire its tagging technology and expertise. On the surface, tagging seems to make sense—allow people to annotate saved web pages with additional information and this information can be used to help improve the relevance of search.

The problem with tagging is that it works well in theory, and also in closed environments where a controlled vocabulary is used for creating tags. But tagging can also be misused, either unintentionally or maliciously. We're all familiar with the malicious use—spammers using web page metadata to misrepresent the contents of a page. Web page metadata failed miserably for this reason, and these days most search engines ignore it when calculating relevance.

Tags can also be unintentionally misused when people use ambiguous or irrelevant words to describe a page. This has the effect of increasing noise and making it more difficult for a search engine to understand the page.

So why is Yahoo making such a big deal about tagging with MyWeb 2.0?

"Tagging within a trust network is very feasible because it allows people to compute the trust," said Walther. In other words, even if people don't do a very good job of tagging, the fact that you trust the people in your community carries a lot of weight. "It allows users to get involved in determining relevance," said Walther. "I can now explain to the search engine why this page is important to me."

He also said Yahoo "spent a lot of time fixing things that didn't work" with previous tagging and metadata systems. "We can pretty much eliminate spam," said Walther.

We'll see. In my tests of MyWeb 2.0, tagging seemed to work fairly well. But this is with the limited number of users Yahoo invited to test the system prior to launch. Once MyWeb 2.0 scales up to thousands or millions of users, it's going to be interesting to see whether tagging continues to produce benefits, or causes the same types of problems that caused search engines to abandon web metadata as all but useless in determining relevance.

The Bottom Line

Despite its rough edges, MyWeb 2.0 is an innovative, thoughtful approach to personalized and community-based search. Many of the new features are genuine steps toward the creation of the semantic web, the next generation "intelligent" web envisioned by web creator Tim Berners-Lee.

MyWeb 2.0 is currently bi-directional, meaning you need to invite someone to share your web and they need to accept the invitation. Later, Yahoo plans to make MyWeb unidirectional, meaning you can share your personal web and allow anyone to see it.

If you have yet to try MyWeb, you should definitely give MyWeb 2.0 a try. Expect to spend some time getting a feel for how to use it, especially when it comes to deciding what tags to use and who you want to be involved in your own community. You can find help and more information at the MyWeb discussion group and on the MyWeb blog.

You'll also find MyWeb 2.0 easier to use (and more useful) if you download the Yahoo Toolbar, which lets you easily save any web page your viewing. Without the Toolbar you can still save pages to My Web but you'll only be able to do so from a Yahoo search results page.

If you already use Yahoo Toolbar for Internet Explorer, My Web 2.0 Beta activation will automatically upgrade it to include the My Web 2.0 features. With Firefox, you'll need to download the Yahoo Toolbar separately, by clicking on the Toolbar link when you first arrive in My Web 2.0 Beta after activation.

MyWeb 2.0 is an exciting innovation from Yahoo. Together with Google's relaunch of personal search yesterday, we're starting to finally see some significant advances away from "mass-market" relevancy and toward tailoring search results to fit the needs of each individual user.

Yahoo and Google are taking very different paths on this journey toward personalization. And don't forget Ask Jeeves, with its MyJeeves personalized search (Jeeves beat Yahoo to the punch, adding tagging last April).

I plan to do an in-depth comparison of personalized search services in an upcoming issue of SearchDay—stay tuned.

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