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7/23/2007
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Spock's Social Search Engine

The soon-to-be-public search engine declares it's now clear that social networks can help organize the world's information and make it personally accessible and useful.

Social computing and search have been destined to merge at least since Google's PageRank algorithm started counting Web links as personal endorsements of relevance.

And really, search has always been personal: We search for our own names, for the names of friends, enemies, and everyone in between. Lately, search companies have responded, adding personalization options to make our searches return results based on our own sense of relevance.

The rapid rise of social networking has forced the issue: It's now clear that social networks can help organize the world's information and make it personally accessible and useful in a way that computer algorithms haven't been able to match.

Spock.com, scheduled to open to the public next month, is the latest child of the union of social computing and search. It is a search engine for people, like Wink.com and, to a lesser extent, ZoomInfo.com. It qualifies as a social technology because unlike people-oriented, privacy-challenged search engines like Zabasearch.com, Spock invites the people in its index to participate in how they get listed.

In the absence of privacy, control is the next best thing and Spock stands out for giving its users a least a little say over how they and others get represented online.

Spock, its creators insist, is thus named because it's a memorable consumer name and because it stands for Single Point of Contact and Knowledge. Perhaps the domain name was just available at the right price.

Search for a name on Spock, say "Steve Jobs," and you'll see a familiar search results page, with a picture of Apple Computer CEO and co-founder Steven Paul Jobs alongside related links, tags, and text as the top result.

Click on the link that is his name and you'll see a profile page that presents biographical information from Wikipedia, a list of related people (Steve Wozniak, John Lasseter, Larry Ellison, to name a few), links to other Web sites with relevant information, and a selection of tags.

Tags are hyperlinked words that users or the Spock Web crawler have associated with this person. Steve Jobs is tagged with "Apple," "CEO," "iPod," and "adopted," to name a few. Clicking on these tags executes a Spock search using the term in question. "CEO," for example, returns Jobs first, followed by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison. Jobs's position at the top of that list is a reflection of how Spock and its users rate him as a CEO.

Spock users can vote publicly on whether or not a tag is accurate. The Spock entry for George Bush, for example, lists the tag "miserable failure," in keeping with the efforts to have Google associate Bush with that term. The Spock vote for the validity of "miserable failure" is currently 42 for and 18 against.

Spock users can create private annotations on other people's contact pages. Only the creator of the notes can see them, not the person profiled or anyone else. It also offers users the ability to make contact information public, private, or viewable only to select "favorites."

Spock allows users to claim their own search profiles. Really, Spock almost demands it -- few who care about how they're represented online will turn down the opportunity to have some say in their portrayal. Users are invited to import their address books as friend lists, to add links to their Web sites, to upload pictures of themselves, and to enter additional information to flesh out their profiles. And if someone tags you with a tag you believe mischaracterized you, you get a vote, though only one, against it. That's where it pays to have friends who'll vote with you.

Spock aims to deter abuses of its system by making people accountable. Only registered users can vote, so proposing an offensive tag for someone is likely to have consequences if that person is also a Spock user. Spock's success may hinge on how well it manages to keep its community cordial. After all, not many people will want to use a search engine that finds them lacking.

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