The Blog of Tom Webster

Chronic Ranter, Reviewer, and Developer. I speak only for myself, opinions are my own.

Test Post from GoogleCL

  2010-07-22 07:13:00 PDT

This is a short test post to see if GoogleCL will do exactly what I want from the command line. I do have multiple blogs that I mangage through Blogger... Hopefully this posts to the correct one.

Edit: It works!!

Fedora 13

  2010-07-10 06:58:00 PDT

Recently, I've changed Linux distributions to Fedora for my main netbook distribution. Coming from a pretty strict regimen of Debian/Ubuntu for a very long time (after moving from SuSE some years ago), I always had a fond love of Debian-based systems, so I was a bit wary about going back to RPM systems (especially after the terrible time I had dealing with YaST). I'm happy to announce that I really do like what Fedora 13 brings to the table. Installation was wonderful, even better than Ubuntu 10.04's install, and even YUM isn't too bad to work with. From the get-go, Fedora 13 let me have full-drive encryption, something that you only get with the text-based Ubuntu alternate installer. To satisfy my full-drive-encryption requirement, I had to fight with the alt-installer for Ubuntu for quite a bit before I worked out a complicated workflow to get all the partitioning set up just the way I like it. Needless to say, it was a total pain in the ass to get working just right with Ubuntu. Just the opposite experience with Fedora 13, it was painless and easy, using the "Standard" installer, Fedora's install just gave me an encryption radio-button and all the necessary dialogs.

Using the system is just as much of a joy. You get a standard Gnome desktop, as usual, but with a bit more focus on enterprise options and business-like settings. With Ubuntu being the most widely-used Desktop distribution, the majority of development will done on that platform, which made some software utilities a bit different to install, but absolute worst case: You download the code and compile it yourself. Not too complicated at all. Fedora seems to run with a bit of a speed-boost as well. Ubuntu always felt like it was dragging its feet on my netbook, but I've had just the opposite reaction to Fedora 13: It really is quite speedy. Linux distributions are all a bit fuzzy in how different they really are from each other, but in my mind, that's a positive point. I don't have to re-learn everything, I can take what I've done with my customized Ubuntu boxes and apply the same theory and logic to Fedora. Having distributions built on one standardized kernel is what makes Linux great.

Bottom Line: If you're looking for a bit of a change in your daily use, want a speed-boost, or are looking for really easy encryption options, give Fedora 13 a shot, you'll be glad that you did.

Aardvark

  2010-06-13 09:12:03 PDT

I've stumbled upon a cool, new web service called Aardvark. Essentially, its ChaCha, but with a much higher limit on the amount of questions you can ask (7 at the moment), and on top of that, the limit resets daily. I've been using the service for a while now and have not been disappointed. Lets take a look at how the service works:

You submit a question to Aardvark via web, IM, or iPhone app (SMS and Android app in development!). Aardvark then sends the question to other users who want to answer questions on that topic. For instance, my topics include: Linux, Technology, Android, The Internet, and Operating Systems, among many others, so I receive questions on those topics (If you want, you can also take on any open question that has not received an answer yet). Aardvark then passes your question around to various individuals and has them give their best answers. Questions usually receive 2-3 answers, and times range around 5 minutes to a few hours for all answers to roll in. The time taken to get an answer back is relatively short, and the answers themselves tend to be more personalized and helpful than ChaCha's, which I have found to be unreliable at times. Question-askers are then asked to say "Thanks!" click one of three choices to rate the answer they received. "Was So-And-So's Answer Helpful?", you can choose: Yes, No, or Kind of but not for me. This helps Aardvark weed out the less-than-helpful users and give more questions to the higher-rated ones.

Aardvark is a pretty cool service, and with enough people and time, it could be as well known as Yahoo Answers or ChaCha, there are only a few things holding it back:

But the service has more going for it than against it, including: Social integration with Twitter and Facebook, a very well done (and innovative) community voting page, and a service that not only works, but provides great service to all of its users. Whenever I'm logged into my IM client, I absolutely love seeing Aardvark pop up with a tech question for me to answer. If I don't feel like it at the moment, I can tell it, "Busy" or "Pass" and it gets the idea. Aardvark doesn't bug me at all, its all very wonderfully tuned to be just the perfect amount of user interaction. Do yourself a favor and try it out today, I'm sure you'll quickly become a fan.

Aardvark

The Power of Human Search

  2010-06-12 00:23:00 PDT

After listening to This Week in Google: Episode 46, I started to think about human-powered search in a different light. Human- curated search engines have been around since the dawn of time, but none of them have ever gained any hugely significant market share when stacked up against the big players (Google, Yahoo, MSN/Bing). Have you ever heard of Mahalo? They are one of the biggest players in this space and they are on the cusp of the unknown in the search world. Gaining most of their popularity through their confident and highly skilled CEO Jason Calacanis, Mahalo is amazingly stable in a business topography that changes radically. With the recent debates over Facebook, Google gaining access to Twitter's data firehose, and now people looking at Facebook for real-time search results, I've been struck with a question that I just can't seem to shake off.

Why hasn't human-powered search ever taken off?

After thinking about this for a while, I've come to the conclusion that the biggest factor against human-powered search engines is that they are all missing one key thing: Humans. If you build a search engine that is entirely dependent on people, you need one key thing to make it work: People! This is what is so innately brilliant about social networks like Facebook and Twitter is that they've gained an enormous amount of active users. Plenty of people posting statuses, recommendations, and location data, all because they want to. Search is just a natural evolution for these services. With a product like Twitter, rolling out search is easy, the service is public-by-default, and people know this. They won't mind being rolled into a search index. Facebook is a more complicated venture. Only the people who want to share with the world should be rolled into the search index. But what about link stats, trends, and general user analytics? Should users be rolled into this non- descriptive, very general, non-identifying trend-graph? That is the question that is currently posing Facebook, and with the recent outcry over their privacy settings (and priorities), they are closely watching what they do with their user data (as they should). This isn't to say, however, that completely public-by-choice users shouldn't be used to build a people-powered search engine. They should! As a matter of fact, it just might be 'cool' enough to power a search engine that it would force people to start opening holes in their Facebook privacy for just this reason. If there is one thing that is for certain: People want to feel needed, the want to feel like part of a larger movement or group, and a Facebook-Powered search engine would do just that.

Google has noticed that real-time search is the next big thing with their release of Caffeine. Because of this new technology, Google has stated that their speeds have increased by 50% on bringing fresh results to a search query. Google knows that real-time results matter for content (especially news content) and is working to bring the freshest parts of the web to you faster. If that isn't fast enough, Google is also pulling the very latest data from Twitter in real time! When you search for 'Oil Spill', you see "Latest results for Oil Spill" and a scrolling Twitter search starts running on your results page right under that. Google and Microsoft have both admitted that human-powered search results, while they may never replace algorithm-based results, play an important role in what people are looking for and how results are curated.

Human-powered results are incredibly important with breaking news items, restaurant reviews, personal recommendations, and things that aren't conductive to "Just Googling It". Things that are happening right now, or situation-dependent searches are much better answered with a human-component involved. Take the question, "What is a good present to buy a 13-year-old for his birthday?", the best answers are taken from Wiki-Answers, Yahoo Answers, and Yelp. All human-powered websites, built around curating and processing varying opinions, reviews, and suggestions. The big search players have figured this out: Human augmented search is here to stay. I believe that with the boom in user numbers from both Facebook and Twitter, there hasn't been a better time find users that could power an exclusively human-powered search engine, and only time will tell if the world is ready for one to thrive.

SEO: A Fake Science?

  2010-06-10 20:00:00 PDT

Disclaimer: 99% of this post was taken from a series of back-and-forth Facebook comments. The debate was extremely thought-provoking and raises some interesting questions from both sides of the fence. In the interest of the other individual, neither quotes, nor names will be posted regarding the discussion, rather, the general feel and main points of the conversation will be posted. There isn't a clear-cut victor at all, the point of this post is to get us thinking about the internet and how it is built, structured, searched, and consumed. To be honest, I thought about skipping this article entirely, as these are extremely controversial talking points among web-folk. Think about your own websites as you read on.

Recently I was involved in a Facebook debate about Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and I align with Leo Laporte in his thinking about SEO. In case you don't know what this is, I'll explain it to you: Search Engine Optimization - These con-men promise you a number one spot on Google searches and the only thing they do is change page titles. There isn't any way to game Google, but these guys con people out of hundreds of dollars at a time with a snake-oil solution.

My position is that SEO is a fake science. Sure, there are a few things to make your site more search-friendly: Change your page titles to reflect your content, put important things near the top, register your domain for more than a year, and build a site map. Guess what? These are all things Google itself suggests when you look up page rank information or use Google's Webmaster Tools. There is no magical incantation to game Google. Not now, not ever. The only way to get top results is to create rich content on a consistent basis. How do you expect to game a constantly changing algorithm? The search algorithm goes through multiple changes every month at the very least. If it were that easy to game the results, you'd only find spam in search results. SEO is utter trash. The only way to rise in search results is to create rich content, bring users to your site, and create this rich content on a consistent basis. This is also known as, the elusive and rare, "Having a decent website you actually put work into." Crazy idea, I know... From some research on Google Patents, the best way to jump ahead in Google search results is to grow your site organically, there aren't any magical keyword or link incantations or special header HTML one can call on to give your site that search boost to propel it to the top, it just won't happen. The funny thing is, SEO's make tons of money every day by scamming people out of their hard-earned cash by promising them a number one spot in search results. At one point in time, there were plenty of people making huge amounts of money from astrology, fortune telling, and alchemy. SEO is the exact same 'science'. These internet 'magicians' promise clients huge traffic boosts out of arcane, secretive methods, that are far, far too complicated for the average person to learn. I'm sure we've all heard these stories before. There are ways to help content become searchable, but a company buying out keywords from linkfarms does nothing to get the top spots from Google. Buying advertising is another thing entirely. Sure, spend thousands on AdWords, it WILL drive traffic, but those aren't search results, those are sponsored positions. Just like those (at one point) 'sciences' of centuries past, plenty of people put in plenty of time and made plenty of money, bit in the end, was anything really accomplished? No. Don't get caught up in this same trap.

Even with my beliefs, the fact remails: There are TONS of people out there that build entire careers out of becoming SEO ninjas. To them, its a real job, doing market research, finding keywords, categorizing and saving backlinks, and using all of these at the proper time to avoid being categorized as spam. They own tons of domains and use various page layout techniques and keyword frequencies to get their job done.

But does it actually work? My money says, 'No'. But it does raise some interesting questions about search engines, web design, spam, and risk management. As web designers and construction-workers of the internet, we should ask ourselves these questions:

Go ahead and post your answers in the comments, and if you want, ask your own questions as well! Questions like this are important to the foundation of the internet and how we think about search and quality content. One thing is for certain: These aren't easy questions to answer, and I don't believe any one person is qualified to answer them, but its the thought that counts.

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