Search Visualized

Thursday, February 10, 2011

When Helioid launched in 2008, the field of search startups was peppered with other search and metasearch engines that used various forms of information visualization to facilitate search refinement. From Quintura’s concept maps to KartOO’s Venn-reminiscent topic diagrams to Grokker’s hierarchical topic clusters, there seemed to be a thriving community of entrepreneurs who agreed that the time was nigh to move beyond the traditional strictly linear format of displaying search results. Of course, we at Helioid were and continue to be staunch supporters of this frame of mind. However, it seems as though the field of visualization-based general web search engines has been thinned a bit. KartOO and Grokker have both folded and Quintura, after having transitioned from their concept map to a less complicated tag cloud, has faded significantly into relative obscurity. Of the few lauded visualization-based search services around when we were founded, it seems only Carrot2 and its commercial sister projects under the Carrot Search umbrella continue to power forward.

However, although there seems to have been a slight and unfortunate retreat from visualization of results as the next big thing in general web search, in the past few years a number of niche search and exploration engines have popped up, using various forms of information visualization. And a couple of them are doing quite well for themselves. Fastcase is a legal search engine that provides users with interactive maps and timelines of search results in order to allow them to dig deeper and more dexterously into the body of results and to gain a more comprehensive view of the spectrum of cases related to their query. Jinni is a movie and tv show recommendation engine, that lets users wander through collages of related shows in order to find programs they’d be interested in, even when they’re not really sure what they’re in the mood for. Both services have been enjoying explosions in popularity in the past year. Meanwhile, a number of fun little visualization tools have popped up for exploring your online social networks, such as Friend Wheel, Social Graph and Touch Graph, which also offers tools for exploring related items on Amazon and similar results on Google.

One of the most common criticisms raised against visualization based search engines is that linear search works because it’s easy and visualizations of results would likely confuse users. Our response was typically that for deep, more involved searches and for open ended, exploratory searches, the benefits gained from these visualizations outweighed any slight increase in initial user confusion (the extent of which can itself be largely remedied by well-designed, intuitive visualizations). Though the field of general web search engines using visualizations has thinned, the success of the niche search tools listed above vindicate our thinking on this matter, by demonstrating their success in search domains in which users are most likely to engage in the type of search activities we described. Fastcase has demonstrated the utility of visualizations for serious searchers who need to dig deep into the results and Jinni has shown how useful interactive visualizations can be helpful in obtaining satisfying results even when you’re not sure what you’re searching for. And the social network visualization tools, particularly Touch Graph, show just how fun, immersive and perfectly intuitive visualization-based search can be. The success of these niche services should precipitate further exploration of the use of visualizations in search.