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Your Search, Your Way

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A new generation of search services goes beyond simple personalization, and lets you customize both your search topics and how results are presented.

Search engines have been quick to pick up on the fact that users want to personalize the information they are getting—Google offers personalized searching for example, and several other search engines will allow a certain level of user intervention with search results.

Now, however, a number of new services are providing ability to create your own search engine, and to search your way. Not literally of course—unless you have millions of dollars available it's unlikely that you're going to start your own search engine from scratch, but if you have a few minutes to spare you can do the next best thing, which is to piggyback on the work of others and create a search resource that works the way that you want it to.

Several services are now available, and today and tomorrow we'll take a look at them. Specifically we have Rollyo, the Yahoo Search Builder, PSS! and Eurekster's Swicki. Although they all claim to do the same job—create a search function for users, they all do it rather differently.

Rollyo

Rollyo, or Roll Your Own search engine, is a free utility—you just have to register to make use of it. The process of creating a "searchroll" is very simple—just decide on the subject matter, and choose up to 25 websites that you feel are authoritative or representative or just plain favorites that relate to a particular subject.

These sites are the ones that the searchroll will use when searching for information, and this is an important point to emphasis—with the Rollyo offering your main task is to include good quality sites and exclude everything else. What the utility will do when a search is run is to search for 'Your term AND (site 1 OR site 2 OR site3... OR site 25). Consequently it's very important to choose what you regard as the best sites, since the searchroll won't fall back on a more general search unless you explicitly tell it to. Rollyo is powered by Yahoo search and results follow a specific order—sponsored results or links, custom news results and custom web results.

One of the strengths of Rollyo is that they've taken a very simple concept and added a lot of functionality while (and this is the important point) keeping it simple. Once a searchroll has been created the owner can keep it private, or allow other people to use it, and they don't even have to have registered with Rollyo. It's possible to put a searchroll onto your own site or weblog for example. You can also use their bookmarklet to search your rolls, or the site that you're on without any fuss.

This isn't something that I've done myself, since I've added various searchrolls to my Firefox search box, and if I need to search the site that I'm currently on I tend to use the Google toolbar option for that. Rollyo also enables users to create searchrolls by uploading their bookmarks which can then be used as a starting point.

As mentioned, searchrolls can be incorporated onto websites; just cut and paste the HTML that is provided and you're ready to go. Well, almost, because I found that the default presentation option was very small and fiddly, so I had to play around with the code for a few minutes to get something that I was happy with, but someone without any experience of HTML might struggle a little bit at this point.

In summary Rollyo is very good at a very simple task, and the addition of new utilities ensure that it's a very valuable resource. If you have a very specific subject area that interests you, or you want to create something of a 'walled garden' for users to search in, I would definitely recommend taking a look at it in detail. It's simple, fast, effective and flexible.

PSS! (Personal search syndication)

PSS!, or Personal Search Syndication, is a newcomer to the world of personalized search builders. In common with the others, it is free, although they are considering introducing a paid premium service. Having registered, you create your PSS and an associated URL, hosted by PSS (though as with Rollyo it can be included on your own website or weblog). The next stage is to configure the search itself.

It was at this point that I was slightly disappointed with the service—I was limited to a total of 24 terms in six rows of four, and these were put together with an AND operator. So I could create a search for 'search AND engine AND technologies AND developments' but not 'search AND engine AND technologies AND developments AND innovations'.

Alternatively I could include in the PSS 'search AND engine' OR 'search AND engines'. I was given no opportunity for phrase searching or anything that even vaguely resembled a complex search. It's fair to say that I could also include four terms to exclude from the search, but again, this is not impressive. The configuration screen was very bare, with limited help facilities and it was only when I'd actually done the configuration of the search and saw what happened as a result did I really appreciate what I was supposed to be doing.

Once the PSS has been created for you it takes about half an hour before you can see any results, and then these are updated for you on a daily basis, with the addition that you can create specific search alerts that are emailed to you. There is also the nice option of getting the data via RSS. Results are displayed in relevance ranked order or by 'date insertion.' I couldn't discover how the results are obtained in any detail other than "Our automated search agents crank away in the background to find relevant content on the Web that matches your described subject matter."

The results themselves did not unfortunately inspire me with a great deal of confidence. Having primed my PSS with terms related to search engines the #1 result when arranged chronologically was a website related to boxing and aerobics, without any mention of search engines at all. The first article that I felt related to my search was actually #5, and to be fair the next five results were also on topic. Admittedly I can then go back and delete inappropriate sites, or individual results, but this is very time consuming, and would be much less necessary if it were possible to create sensible complex searches in the first place.

I can see that PSS could be useful if you need to keep up to date with a particular subject area, and can define the nature of your enquiry with some very basic keywords or search syntax. However, I did not feel that PSS would adequately replace my canned MSN searches or Google News Alerts. To be fair, that is only part of what the PSS team want to achieve, and the emphasis is on syndicating a personal search, so it may well be a useful addition to a librarian's armory if they have a need to run a lot of updating searches for a large number of clients. More development work with the ability to create more complex search strings could however pay dividends, so I'll continue to keep an eye on it.

Tomorrow: A look at Yahoo's new Search Builder and Eurekster's Swickis.

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