Kozoru opens public beta testing of byoms (build your own mobile search) today. I mentioned this was coming last week. Today, I've spent some time exploring some of the byoms that are available, and creating my own. I found the system easy to use, reasonably intuitive, fast and generally effective. As a searcher, it's going to be something that will be a useful addition to the search tools available; both the ready made byoms and more importantly those that you make yourself.
The system is not difficult to use, certainly if you just want to use one of the byoms that have been created by kozoru. Simply open your AOL chat client (AIM) and add any of the following screen names to your system:
byomsFedMeda (Federated Media)
byomsDailyCandy (Daily Candy)
byomsHuffington (Huffington Post)
byomsWorldChange (World Changing)
byomsGlobalVoice (Global Voices)
Next, open up a chat window with the one that you?re interested in, and type in your search term or query. After a few seconds you should receive full sentence responses. I used the byomsWikipedia and searched for ?stonehenge? and had three replies (the pre-defined limit for that byom) which told me what it was, where it was and its composition. Two other replies provided information on Stonehenge II and Stonehenge Aotearoa, together with the URLs for all three entries. Obviously the information was limited, but this is an IM application after all, and the point is not to get huge amounts of data, just straightforward responses in a sentence form that answer the query.
In order to get the most out of the byoms, the searcher really needs to know their source and which search terms to use; a regular search that doesn?t give good responses isn?t going to be much better if consulted via an IM client. Having said that, the result from the Stonehenge example used above was in my opinion rather more helpful when searched via the byom service than the site itself, so it?s not an unbreakable rule. Generally however, it?s going to be important to treat each byom differently, and structure searches according to the source used, rather than assume you can treat each one in the same way, simply because you?re using the same method to get the required information. There may also be a temptation to ?chat? to the byoms feed, and put in too much information, leading to a poor response, when a terse query may well provide better data. People who use IM on a regular basis may need to cultivate brevity!
Now, this sort of service isn?t entirely new; Gary recently mentioned that users of MSN Messenger can send a request to firstname.lastname@example.org and interrogate the Encarta product via IM for example. However, with the byoms application users can create their own feeds and this does give an interesting spin to the concept. This takes slightly longer than just adding one of the ready made byoms to your AIM.
Firstly you have to create an AIM screen name for the byoms feed. Next, go into the byoms system, create a byoms with the same name, add one or more trusted sites to your byoms, then save it, use it and share it. Of course, it?s not quite that simple, and in order to create a good feed it is necessary to do some tweaking. It takes time to balance different sites in order to create a good mix; I found trying to create a feed with both a thesaurus and an acronym finder didn?t work well, so had to take one out for the searches to work the way I wanted them to. While creating the byoms feed you need to decide which of the main indexes you want to use ? Google, Yahoo, Gigablast or Microsoft (it's worthwhile exploring this, since you can get quite different responses), add and edit keywords to fine tune the search and finally give it a description so that others can find and use it.
My experience was that it was best to create a byoms that just searched a single site, though of course others will find many situations where a byom will work with several similar sites. I wouldn't advise trying to combine very different types of site into the same byom. However, it was very easy to check what worked and what didn't - I just had to add in or remove specific URLs, test the byom in my AIM client and continue to fine tune. Once someone has created a byoms feed it can be shared with others by adding a button to their site ? visitors click it, and the byoms feed is immediately added to their AIM client. Website authors may well want to create a byoms that just searches their site, giving users another way of finding the information they need; particularly useful if they are out and about and not close to a desktop machine.
As a searcher, I have found byoms useful in several ways. If I have a browser that already has a lot of tabs open, the last thing that I want to do is to open another, just to check something quickly. It?s much easier to open the IM client, run my query, get the response and carry on working. There are times when I don?t want a large set of results to pore over, and a quick and simple response from the byoms is just what I need. I can of course get quick answers from many of the search engines now, but that doesn?t help if I?m trying to find information on a large site that doesn?t have its own search engine; a byoms feed would be more helpful in that situation. Of course, the main advantage is the mobility of the system. If I?m out and about and need to find something on the net I can of course start up my PDA, log into a search engine, run the search and hope that I can drag out the answer I need quickly, given the slow nature of the connection. An IM client is quicker to load, I get a swift short response to my query and I can then continue what I was doing with limited disruption.
The system does have drawbacks of course. At the moment it is only possible to use the AOL IM client, so if you use Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger, Google Talk or Jabber you will either have to wait, or install AIM on your desktop or mobile. With the exception of the byoms created to search single trusted sites I would not be happy using ones made by other people, since I would not have control over them; they may decide to change the sites searched, number of results returned and so on. I think it?s far easier to simply create my own, and then I have complete control.
The pre-configured byoms didn?t always give me the result I was hoping for; a search for Tony Blair?s birthdate using the byomsWikipedia gave me Gordon Brown?s, while another result pointed me to an entry on dates in Harry Potter. To be fair though, I didn?t get an exact answer when I typed in the same query in the Wikipedia, so is it the fault of the algorithm, or the site(s) being used? A search for ?dyslexia? using the byomsWebMD didn?t give me much helpful information, while the same search at WebMD itself was more informative.
Is a failed result the fault of the source used, the way in which the user has set up the byom, the algorithm, or the ability of the person searching? Ultimately, as a searcher I just want accurate results quickly. The byom adds another layer to the search process; the more layers there are, the further away from the original resource the searcher becomes and greater the opportunity for error.
Is there a place for this sort of search service? There?s certainly a growing market for, and interest in instant messaging. A 2004 Pew Internet Study showed that 4 in ten online Americans use IM, which equates to about 53 million individuals. In my own field it's becoming increasingly common for librarians to add their IM details as well as their telephone number and email address. An increasing number of librarians and libraries are using IM in their day to day enquiry work, and I'm beginning to see IM details included on library home pages for example. In a more general field, Microsoft are running a contest to get developers to create conversational robots for their IM systems. We also shouldn?t forget another market ? that of children who use IM without thinking about it and for them, searching the web for, and pulling down information using a resource they understand well is a next obvious step.
The use of IM to obtain information quickly and effective is a logical convergence of both search and mobile communications. It allows us to take search with us wherever we are, and whatever we're doing. As a searcher I don't want to be tied to a book, a desk or a computer, and search over IM is a very attractive proposition. Consequently, while it's a relatively quiet field at the moment, I think it's going to get much busier in the coming year.