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Making Your Searches More Contextually Aware

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Aware is a desktop search application that learns from context, automatically fine-tuning your search results and providing controls that allow you to influence the importance of your search terms.

Aware joins the class of "research manager" programs that we've written about, such as Onfolio, Nextaris and others. These tools go beyond search by providing a suite of tools that let you manipulate search results in interesting ways not possible with search engines.

Aware differs from the previous programs I've reviewed in that it actively attempts to learn what's important to you by analyzing the context of web pages returned in search results, adding additional relevant keywords to future searches by allowing you to rate pages favorably or unfavorably or even eliminate them from future results altogether.

To begin researching a topic, create a new "project." Enter a few preliminary keywords, and you're ready to go. If you want to save your search, you can also give it a name at this point.

Results are displayed just as you see in a search engine, with the addition of a rank score, the source of the result and two "rating" buttons and "ignore" check boxes that I'll explain in a moment. Clicking the title of a search result opens the underlying web page in your default browser.

If you like a search result, click on the "plus" rating button to download and save the web page on your computer. If you don't like a result, click the "minus" rating button. In both cases, Aware takes note of your choices by analyzing the context of the pages you've rated and gradually learning more about what you consider to be relevant (and not relevant) to your topic.

For really bad results, you can instruct the program to totally ignore a web page or an entire site by checking the appropriate box. This will prevent the content from appearing in subsequent search results.

At this point, you can search again using your keywords, or run an "aware search" which uses the contextual profile the program has built. To see this profile, click the "terms" tab at the top of search results.

This is where things get interesting. The terms list displays your keywords, as well as a list of related search terms the program has determined are relevant to your research. Next to each term is a slider that shows a rating for the term, on a plus/minus scale. You can change the rating for each term by dragging the slider. Once you've manually changed a rating it gets "locked" so that further contextual refinement won't change its relative importance.

While this initially seems like a really cool feature, in practice it's difficult to really know how the program changes its assessment of web pages once you've manually tweaked the weighting of search terms. Results definitely change, but you have to take it on faith that the filters actually are working as you expect.

This isn't a flaw—this is exactly what a search engine does when you enter a simple search query. But it can lead to an illusion of greater control, particularly when you're unfamiliar with a subject and you don't recognize some of the search terms the program has extracted from analyzing the context of search results.

That said, it's still cool to be able to exercise these filtering features, because they really do seem to bring up different results than you get even when you use advanced search features offered by the underlying engines. Whether you get useful results or not appears to depend on the nature of your query, and your willingness to spend time refining results.

Aware provides other controls that allow you to increase or decrease the number of queries per search, number of results per search and something called a "depth ratio," which is the number of unique results Aware ranks relative to your search topic before presenting the final results list. This is essentially a multiplier—set the ratio to a higher number if you want more highly refined search results. Remember, though, that increasing any of these values will slow down the program.

Currently, Aware uses AltaVista, Google, MSN and Yahoo as web search sources—notably missing is Ask Jeeves/Teoma. Aware also optionally allows you to search other sources, including the DayPop Blog and News, Scirus, Findlaw, Google News and Google Groups. Although there's an "update sources" button that apparently adds new sources when Aware's development team decides to include them, there's no way to add your own search sources, an omission I found irritating.

Aware has basic import/export capabilities so you can share your work with other users. The collaborative tools in the other web research managers I've reviewed are much more powerful, however.

I haven't used Aware enough to say whether it's a really valuable addition to my web search toolkit, but I'm intrigued enough to continue testing the program. My initial impression is that you'll get best results when your topic is information-oriented.

When I tested product related queries, the program had a harder time distinguishing between what I felt was relevant information and content that had been optimized to rank well in search engines, even assigning a high degree of relevance to outright spam. But Aware is still a relatively new program, and future releases are likely to address these issues.

Aware Search - 30 Day Free Trial
http://www.awaresearch.com/freetrial.htm

Aware Search System Requirements
Windows 2000, XP and higher (Win98 is not supported)
Pentium III, 600MHz or better
256 MB of RAM
20GB Hard Drive

When you install Aware, the installer will download and install the Microsoft .NET Framework 1.1 (22MB), if you do not already have the framework installed.

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