From search to aggregation addiction

Will aggregation replace search when it comes to finding useful content on the Web? I reckon so.

A few weeks back I participated in a debate at a conference in Sydney, arguing the negative side on the topic "Search Will Take Over The World (Wide Web)".

You might say the result was a foregone conclusion -- my learned opponent was from Google, and it was a search engine marketing conference -- but despite the affirmative's eventual dominance, many interesting points were raised on both sides.

My argument was that search will be -- and in many cases, has been -- usurped by more dynamic, entertaining, and most of all, more personally relevant methods of Internet navigation. Here's an abridged version:

Search was fun for a while. We Googled ourselves and each other, we looked up celebrities and weird or socially inappropriate topics that we'd never dare discuss in the real world. But that entertainment was ephemeral. And the titillation value is fleeting. Search is a means to an end. It's an intermediate step. It's the Hong Kong stopover on the way to London -- sure, it's diverting for a little while, but in the end you just want to get to Big Ben.

In this age of Web 2.0, with its friendly drag-and-drop interfaces and rounded corners, it's time to bring back the human element. It's time to stop typing search queries into text fields and receiving a million useless results. Meaningful online experiences nowadays are not about search, but browsing within a confined, customised and trusted framework where things have been hand-picked by people of like mind.

Take the recent proliferation of aggregation and recommendation services. StumbleUpon, which my colleague Munir Kotadia dubbed "one of most interesting and addictive new tools on the Web", is a Firefox add-on that allows you to browse sites that others of like mind have deemed worthy of your attention. Digg is a "digital media democracy" whose content is determined and popularised by its users. Pages are handpicked, not spewed out according to an algorithm.

In the weeks since the debate I've rediscovered NetVibes, and if I had to argue against search's dominance of the World Wide Web again, I'd probably put more emphasis on services of its ilk. NetVibes reverses the search process -- instead of seeking content by typing phrases into a text field, you visit one page containing all the RSS/ATOM feeds you've added. Where NetVibes excels though, is in the modules it offers. eBay auctions you're watching, Web-based e-mail accounts, the latest Flickr photos from your contacts, MySpace blogs -- all these can be added as modules onto your NetVibes page.

At the risk of sounding like some sort of infomercial evangelist shmoozing with Moira on GMA, discovering NetVibes has changed the way I do things online. Basically, I no longer need to point my browser anywhere except my NetVibes homepage in order to get my daily updates. Everything is there - e-mail accounts, the blogs I follow, tech news, frivolous timewasters and so forth.

Having amassed an obscene amount of content onto my NetVibes page (which is now organised into themed tabs), I imagine that the information overload will eventually result in some sort of synaptical short-circuit that renders me a lifeless husk of my former self and requires the employment of a trained carer. But for now I'm loving the ability to have everything in one place.

Aggregation services like NetVibes present some compelling challenges besides the "info overload" factor, chiefly:

  • For many modules (such as e-mail and eBay auctions), you need to provide your username and password to NetVibes. There's something a little unnerving about that.
  • Online advertisers probably aren't too impressed when crowds of people get their info in RSS feeds rather than loading a page full of banner ads
  • Services that track Web site traffic will need to take aggregation services into account in their analysis
  • Web designers lose control over how their content is formatted

With these issues in mind, it will be fascinating to see how aggregation and recommendation services fare over the next few years, and whether the "seek to find" mentality shifts to an "aggregate and wait" one.

Netvibes

Some modules from my NetVibes page. Click to enlarge