Blippex – Crowdsourcing Search

blippex-ronaldo

Competition in the Search Engine field has been quite stale ever since Google took over the scene. Some prototypes have cropped up here and there, some even attempted by ex-Googlers, but most of them faded into oblivion as quickly as they appeared. Competing with Google is hard. Very hard. No other general search engine can display a few results with the relevance and speed of the big G at an international level. Nor can they so neatly mash up different types of content and data depending on the query. Bing, Blekko and DuckDuckGo are some of the runners-up still in the game, especially for the English-speaking world. (Google still is the undisputed international superstar.)

Blekko does some interesting result clustering into topics, although it comes at the cost of speed. DDG offers results frequently on par with Google, while providing a less cluttered and more private experience. It is dependent on other search engines and sources, but it does a great job of mashing up information from these diferent sources, providing quick answers to some questions. While Google develops everything internally or straight-up buys other companies’ technology, DDG relies on partnerships with other interesting services such as Wolfram-Alpha to become a little smarter. My only gripe with DDG is that their stance is pretty much anti-Google but not anti-Bing, which doesn’t make much sense. Otherwise I love what their data partnerships and quick answer box can do:

CSS color lookup in DDG: #ccc is... a shade of gray!
CSS color lookup in DDG: #ccc is… a shade of gray!

What none of these search engines did was to rewrite the whole concept of web search. They all pretty much play by the book. The only truly innovative engines after Google were the visual ones. As of 2013 there appears to be only one worthwhile visual search engine: Oolone. I feel tempted to give it a go. But besides a different way of presenting results, few people have been successful at coming up with an alternative way to retrieve and rank the results. In other words, PageRank is still king.

Oolone: visual search
Oolone: visual search

Today, a new kind of web search came to my attention. The guys at Blippex had the idea of getting results solely based on which webpages people visit and how long their visits last. They don’t care about crawling the web through links. Naturally, it’s an idea with a big obstacle: getting traction is very, very hard. In the beginning, Blippex didn’t have a single site in their index! Blippex grows along with its user base: the more people use it, the more webpages it will get to know and rank. To this end, their browser extension helps them gather webpages and dwell times. Fortunately, they’re also very privacy-aware, making sure they don’t use cookies or store any other data.

blippex-ronaldo
Blippex: the new generation of search?

Presently, Blippex it’s still way behind a usable state, missing several sites, but it’s only been online for a few months. Regardless of its ability to grow, I’m very fond of the idea, and for the first time impressed with a new search engine. I wonder what Blippex could accomplish if they strive long enough and perhaps adopted an equally innovative presentation. For that wonder alone, I will contribute to Blippex by using their browser extension. Realistically, though, there’s few chances that Blippex will be able to gather critical mass, and even less chances that it will understand its users’ intentions as well as Google does. For there’s much more to Google than simply Pagerank.

Google will still have the upper hand:

  • They’re years ahead in research and development.
  • They have a huge and talented workforce.
  • They have advanced technology by experts in every field of computing.
  • They have humungous amounts of data to draw from.
  • Probably they can also estimate the time spent on websites, either with their Toolbar or at least by checking if the same user is returning to Google after their first click on a result.
  • They even reasonably survived attempts of manipulation (webspam).

Still, if you’re intrigued by the idea, check out this article at Quartz for the interesting background of Blippex.

Basic Tips for Privacy on the Web

In the light of recent news about N$A practices, you may wonder how to take a little more control of your Web presence and experience. Here are some steps to consider if you value privacy…

Email:

  • Make sure the connection to your email provider/server is a secure connection. Webmail providers (those where you check your email in your browser) usually are. Others (server-based) should be double-checked to be using SSL/TLS connection.
  • If you’re in Europe, consider using an European mail provider, such as eclipso.eu. If you have a website hosted in European servers, you can set up your own domain for email.
  • For an additional security layer, consider encrypting your messages. Thunderbird users can use the Enigmail add-on. For Webmail, there are some browser extensions for encryption. Click here for more guidance on this.

Encrypted Searches:

  • Use encrypted.google.com as your default search engine, thus preventing eavesdropping from random people when browsing in unsecure connections. You can also try DuckDuckGo — a search engine that doesn’t focus on personalized results. DDG’s results aren’t always perfect, so personally I stick with Google for searches (logged off).
  • Note: this won’t prevent your Internet Service Provider (a.k.a. ISP / your Internet access company) from knowing the sites you visit and the terms of your searches. Google might also keep track unless you turn off their web history.

Proxies/VPN [advanced]:

Enable HTTPS browsing:

  • HTTPS Everywhere
  • Enable HTTPS / secure browsing in Facebook’s privacy settings. Double-check your other settings there, in case Facebook sneaked in another “feature” with dubious purposes. Better yet, avoid facebook altogether.

Hold your cookies:

  • Control the “cookies” stored by webpages (and their ads) on your computer. For example, you can configure your browser to keep cookies only until you close the browser. I suggest doing a complete cleanup of all cookies once before you configure this. Be ready to remember the passwords you have used in the past, because…
  • You will need to login again to any site requiring login on your next browsing session. You can counter this by letting your browser save passwords. Personally I prefer that to having all that cookie data on my computer, as I trust browser developers more than advertisers.
  • The privacy options of web browsers usually provide a Do Not Track setting, which in theory it can help prevent advertisement tracking. Google Chrome also provides prediction and spell checking services which you might not really need.
  • Update: If you have Flash installed, check the settings to prevent any data from being stored by Flash in your computer. Unfortunately, web companies have now adopted Flash as a cookie-like data-storing mechanism.

Blocking ad trackers, social plugins (and any scripts):

  • As a complement to the point above, or especially if you have issues controlling your cookies so tightly, you can also use browser extensions like Privacy Badger. They can identify and block trackers and social plugins that appear in many sites. If you block social plugins you actually stop seeing those annoying “X people like this page on Facebook” boxes.

Personal mentions and profiles:

  • If you’re being mentioned on the web and would like to disappear, SafeShepherd can help with that.

Online Storage:

  • Avoid storing all your personal files in the cloud, at least with companies from countries with snoopy governments.

Chat:

  • Now this one is a pickle. Microsoft is arguably making Skype less resistant to government snooping; Google has just removed the ability to disable all chat history by default; and Facebook, well, is just not trustworthy regarding how much of your data they keep and access freely.
  • If you want to be fairly confident about the eternal privacy of your chats, you might need to use something like ChatSecure or Pidgin‘s encryption plugin. This is, in practice, very hard because you need every other person to use the same.
  • In the end, you’re probably better off not caring much about it and keeping sensitive talks offline.

Did I forget anything?

Third-party Comment Systems Gone Wild

2013 must be the year of third-party commenting systems. Facebook’s comments were already popular and integrated into several sites. This year I’ve seen Disqus take over the comment sections of some websites, apparently increasing their lead over Livefyre, while Google is already deploying their Google+ comment integration in Blogspot.

These solutions might be interesting for the business owner / novice webmaster who wants to save some time on implementing comments on a plain, non-CMS site. On the other hand, I don’t really understand why many CMS-based sites are dropping their native CMS option in favor of a solution with so many drawbacks. This is what’s happening…

  1. Third-party commenting systems own the comments. They feed them to the webpages through scripts that don’t actually make the comments part of the source code or (in other words) visible to search engines. It gets worse with Google+ where many comments are actually not comments, but Google+ shares of the webpage. Sometimes you can’t even follow a proper line of discussion in the original site.
  2. External systems can fail independently of your site being up and running. I’ve personally experienced a case where externally hosted comments just wouldn’t load. It also happened that I lost my comment for failing to realise that I needed to log in.
  3. 3rd party comment systems track comments of a user across all the sites using the same system. Just the kind of centralization that your favorite government intelligence loves.
  4. These systems also force the user to either create another account (adding complexity to the user’s own account/password management process) or to give them access to some of your social profile data.
  5. They can simply not work on mobile devices. With smartphone and table use on the rise, you’re losing valuable interactions with your site.

I wonder if there’s any study out there that measured user engagement before and after the switch from native to third-party comment systems… So far I only found similar opinions. [1,2,3]

The Day I Quit Facebook

daytriedI woke the same as any other day
Except a voice was in my head
It said, “Seize the day, pull the trigger
Drop the blade and watch the rolling heads”
— The Day I Tried to Live (Soundgarden)

Dear $FB,

I’m sorry, but we should start seeing other people… I broke up with you before, yet this time I won’t go silently nor temporarily. Now it’s more like one of those street break-up scenes with TVs flying outta windows.

Your recent attempt to hide my email address, albeit a failed one, was the latest display that you never loved me. I knew that already, of course, because if you loved me, you wouldn’t have tried to squeeze the contacts from my gmail and smartphone

If you loved me, you certainly wouldn’t have messed up my looks (profile) twice — once by turning my written interests into pre-defined entities that you use to build a profile of me to be sold to advertisers; and a second time by forcing the timeline on me. I don’t need tattoos, thank you.

If you loved me, you wouldn’t censor my friends, by showing only a few of them on chat. You wouldn’t censor posts from or to Google+. You wouldn’t steal content of Wikipedia pages when your end goal is commercial. You wouldn’t use my photo and information on ads shown to other people. You wouldn’t even try to track me all over the Internet with a cyber-GPS!

If you loved me, you would learn to forget… the messages and photos that I delete, instead of keeping them forever. Better yet, you wouldn’t have read all my messages in the first place.

$FB darling, I’m in love with another. And from Sunday onwards, I shall sleep on your bed no more. My account will be shut down and I will be celebrating… Portugal’s Euro cup win. (There’s always hope)


 

2015-05-29 Update: You’d think by now they would have gotten their shit together. You’d be wrong…

Not enough reasons to quit? Here are all of them!

X things you need to know (and other lists)

These days, Internet media tend to follow blindly the heuristic of giving pre-formatted titles to their articles, such as “X things you need to know / Y things that will help your {career, love life, social life}” or “Are you doing this or that?” in the hopes that they will achieve optimum user engagement. Ironically, this trend has become mainstream to the point where every article looks the same based on their title. Reading through my Pulse or Google Reader articles, I can’t help but fast-forward past a lot of these headlines.

Today, however, I came across an interesting blog where all the articles are lists on 10 points on a given topic — and couldn’t help but feeling engaged! Learn the lesson, folks:

  • Keep it simple, keep it factual;
  • Do your research to substantiate your claims;
  • Be consistent!

…And while you’re at it, read the excellent 10 things you need to know to be happier. 🙂