Separating the Wheat from the Chaff
From the start in ’94 as an awards program that identified top sites on the web, it has been Best of the Web’s goal to help people find sites that stand out over others in their field. Before search engines, personal bookmark lists and human edited directories were the only way people had to easily identify sites that were worthwhile.
Human edited directories are still the most reliable screening tool and still play an important role in mapping the web, but encounter a physical limitation as to potential volume compared to search engine spiders. Search engines attempt to mechanically overcome the human factor, but even the best spiders can be tricked by patterns a human would easily spot. Early SE’s were extraordinarily easy to game, and it wasn’t uncommon to see the same site 10 times in the top 10 results for some set of keywords.
Then came Google…
…with the magic algorithm, rendering a surprisingly lower degree of garbage in the results pages than the engines it unseated from the top spot. Still, just as nobody goes to a physical mailbox without an expectation of seeing junk mail, we’ve grown accustomed to the fact that when we run a search on ANY engine we WILL see spam in the results, the only difference is how much.
The decade after Google’s introduction brought an escalating arms race between guys creating websites they wanted at the top of the SERPs vs guys writing equations to filter out slop. Spiders became increasingly sophisticated and Google largely became the standard by which others are measured. Bing has stepped up with the backing of Microsoft, Cuil entered with fanfare and faded out, and one of the original players, Yahoo!, recently dropped from the ranks of those returning their own custom results.
Into this fray enters Blekko
Blekko attempts to overcome limitations of both the directory and SE models by offering a blend… a search engine tempered by many many human eyes. Here’s a slice of the Blekko model as described by co-founder Rich Skrenta on his blog…
We’re starting by letting users define their own vertical search experiences, using a feature we call slashtags. Slashtags let all of the vertical engines that people define on blekko live within the same search box. They also let you do a search and quickly pivot from one vertical to another.
Reviews by the Pros
There have been several in-depth articles on the new product. Some over at Search Engine Land on the topic, with Danny Sullivan providing background (Blekko, The “Slashtag” Search Engine, Goes Live) and Greg Sterling offering a heads-up comparison on how results fared against Google (Google And Blekko Head-To-Head: Blekko Lives To Fight Another Day). Additionally Aaron Wall wrote a prelaunch review at SEO World (Blekko Cozy Up to Webmasters, Offers Killer SEO Data Free) including interview with the founders, and there have been several stories over at Tech Crunch including Michael Arrington’s TechCrunch Review: The Blekko Search Engine Prepares To Launch.
Anyway, between those and others I’ll concede the technical explanations to the tech guys and stick with the user perspective.
Of course the prime force in the SE world, Google, has become far more than just a purveyor of search results, offering Google Analytics, the popular Gmail product, as well as advertising vehicles like Adsense and Adwords. Blekko is reportedly to offer advertising opportunities as well, offers their own toolbar, and has SEO tools that allow a user to compare sites, assess duplicate content, analyze links, etc. To reach those tools click on the “Help” button and click on the “SEO” tab.
The Human Component
As far as harnessing the public to set up slashtags, there’s always the chance an egalitarian move like that might start a budding industry in web forums where people offer slashtag services by the truckload. It could also mean results might simply be drawn down to the lowest common denominator, like having the President elected by a vote on Facebook. Social media and wide participation is a mixed blessing. I love Wikipedia, but can’t shake the nagging thought that the page may have been drafted by the kid that just bagged my groceries. That said, Wiki has turned out to be a good resource.
Then again, Blekko’s setup also includes automated components, and a search on “Great Americans /history” doesn’t include a single word about Britney Spears… so they must have some safeguards on the social media aspect.
Bottom line, Blekko shares our goal to help people find the best sites available for a given purpose by letting human eyes separate the the spam from the steak. It’s a tough market, but their founders are known for thinking outside the box. It will be interesting to watch this one develop. We wish them luck.