Can you please tell me your intent? Says Google with Search Options

Tons of news coming on the new Google Search Options release; Google Search options is a “tool belt” that can be used to organize the search results based on ones intent Google says. This is a significant step in a new direction for Google, a direction that seems to be openly admitting a couple of things:

a. “guessing” user’s intent is super-hard
b. relevance is not uni-dimensional anymore (yes, Pagerank only represents only a fraction of it)

Hence let the user control what/how they want to see the information. Looks plain and simple – right? No – there is more.

While the usefulness of this tool is going to be limited for the end-users in “organizing” the search results – there is a significant bit of “learning data” that Google will be able to collect about keyword queries and the related user’s intent with all the billions of click-streams flowing through the Search Options. This is exactly how they beat the first round of “web search” game – and it’s time for the second round, perhaps?

Is this about real-time search?

Many bloggers screaming and shouting that this is all about real-time search (and by definition as answer to twitter search!) – I disagree. While recency (or real-time-ness) is a dimension of the new web search relevance paradigm, it’s not all about that. This fundamental shift in the relevance paradigm is going to force all of us to think about alternative ways to “crawl” and index the web – and it is forcing Google too. The problem we are just beginning to notice with “real-time” search is a problem waiting to happen for a long-time.

Web is full of spam – it takes a bit of learning for any search engine to figure out how to differentiate between spam content and real content – and Google was far ahead of this learning curve with their brilliant feedback systems built into their search results – each time user clicks on a link from the search results, it was counted as a vote of confidence – that coupled with volume – they built an un-beatable asset – world’s largest and finest uni-dimensional relevance database for the web (don’t under-estimate the power of this database – they had billions of these clicks recorded across the web way before Microsoft even started building their search engine). Now with the evolution of new relevance paradigm that includes relevance as we know it and also the new dimensions such as time, location, rich-media and so on, there is a need for more detailed and elaborate feedback system that enables users to express their intent so that it can be captured, processed, understood and applied back to the web – and Google Search Options is just one way of doing that.  

What does this mean? New world of search is in order – perhaps we need a hybrid of “crawl/index” and “subscribe/index” – perhaps HTTP and XMPP should be integrated into a new kind of web servers that can serve and notify of the content at the same time, perhaps search is push instead of pull? What does this mean for SEO? 🙂 I can go on and on and on here – all this indicates one thing for sure – web is still evolving, web still is full of spam (now even real-time – get that! 🙂 and we need a new way to organize web’s information.

Photo: intent by outlier*

On my mind: romantic things to do in new york

Google news update- Spam vs. Relevance

Today Google News launched an update to the service that included a “detail” page that organized salient sources with enhanced content such as photos, timelines, and quotes. I love Google news, but not sure if I like this addition. I use Google news regularly and I find this new update confusing.  

[v1+screenshot+of+new+slp.jpg]

TechCurnch said its an issue with the algorithm and went on to compare TechMeme with Google news. As a geek that plays with document clustering in more than one domain I don’t think its a pure algo issue. The issue seems to be primarily around filtering the spam (or including stories that are less “authentic” – but still very strongly related – do you see the difference?). But that’s a problem that can be solved easily in a number of different ways (of course the easiest way is to follow Techmeme’s approach where you crawl only a known set of sources). But I must admit that I’m surprised to see that the Google QA teams let this slip through. I also still don’t get why the detail page contains grouping of news based on the location. Any ideas on why that is being done?

Overall, I think this release is a bit of a disappointment, but hey, its still a great way to browse news on the web, especially in mother tongue telugu!

On my mind:kid friendly restaurants in san francisco

Plan like a true local!

Today we rolled out a new release on Center’d that introduces “Flavored Local Technology” – a machine learning based approach to classify local places of interest based on conversations on the web from locals. We have been providing the collaboration and planning tools for almost an year now and the addition of this technology and the related tools should help you plan from a casual plan (where to go dinner tonight with kids) to an elaborate plan (how to organize the summer picnic at school). And that is exactly what we would love to do – help you plan your life’s activities.

Intent based activity search is one of the best ways to approach casual local planning problem – it is a new kind of local search with activities or things to do being the primary focus; and if you think about it activities are driven by the intent – when you look for a restaurant, you have a specific intent (say romantic?); when you look for an attraction you have a specific intent (say group friendly?); when you search for things to do (say kid friendly?), you have an itent; today with this release, we are launching five (5) supported intent “styles”: kid friendly, romantic, group friendly, outdoor and “recession buster” (aka cheap) to make it easy to find places that fit into popular “categories” such as eat (restaurants etc), visit (attractions), attend (local events) and shop (shopping).

Crawling the web for local conversations and understanding the intent/activity behind them is a huge task – eventhough we used the cloud-computing goodness with Amazon EC2 compute clusters – there is simply not enough time to get everything done right – so we are rolling out this release in the following top 12 cities: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, Palo Alto, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington DC. Other cities will follow soon. Of course, we still have the local search enabled for other cities, but we just haven’t finished processing the data yet. So, give it a try and give us feedback!

I’m excited the way this has come together – incredibly hard-working team (can you believe all the development was done by just 4 engineers?) coupled with my learnings from IR tinkering put to work to solve a good problem: enabling global access to local knowledge. Now you be the judge – give us a try and let us know!

Here is the copy of the full press release:

 

Center’d Unveils “Flavored Local” Search – New Approach to Local Planning

Filters Content by Intent

Develops Unique Activity-Based Search Index of More than 1 Million Places

Intent-Based Styles Including “Kid-Friendly” and “Recession Buster” Help People Quickly Find Things to Do That Meet Their Needs

APRIL 28, 2008 – MENLO PARK, CA – Center’d (http://www.centerd.com), the Web site that helps people plan life’s activities, today released new tools, features and data that help people find things to do in local areas based on their intent.  By analyzing millions of conversations about places on the Web, Center’d has created a unique index of more than 1 million places that are classified by activity intent, including kid-friendly, romantic, cheap, and more.  This allows people to quickly discover places and activities that best suit their needs while short-cutting the overload of unstructured local data on the Internet.  To highlight the new personal planning information and tools, Center’d has redesigned and enhanced many areas of its site.

“Consumers want a faster way to find local activities that meet their needs without having to visit multiple sites and sift through hundreds of reviews.  Our unique activity index and personal planning features help solve this problem and complement our existing group collaboration tools,” said Jennifer Dulski, co-founder and chief executive officer of Center’d.  “In addition to solving a consumer pain point, this new approach to local search also positions us well to provide advertisers and publishers with more relevant solutions to engage audiences and monetize content.”

A Novel Approach to Local Search

Center’d created its unique activity-based index using innovative natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning technology to analyze millions of conversations across the Web.  The index includes inputs from local review sites, aggregators, and blogs through feeds and publicly available sources, as well as data from plans people make using group collaboration tools on Center’d.  Based on its data analysis, Center’d has integrated 5 intent classification “styles” on its site which include kid-friendly, group-friendly, romantic, cheap, and outdoor.  As data continues to be analyzed and classified, more intent styles will be made available on the site. 

People can currently find information about restaurants, attractions, shopping and events across the intent styles in a number of new or enhanced areas of the site:

Enhanced Search: Center’d has built upon its ability to filter search results by people’s social graph and added filters for intent styles, which yields more accurate results for activity-based searches compared to standard keyword search.

New City Pages: Center’d has created city guides for 12 major cities where people can browse things to do by intent style and place category. This allows consumers to get a view of a city filtered by their personal needs. For example, each city guide will have a kid-friendly style page with restaurants, attractions, events and movies that are suitable for children. The new city pages also feature editorial content from bloggers with local expertise that complements the intent styles.

Updated Place Profiles: To give people a faster understanding of a business or attraction, place profile pages now include the most popular “snippets” of web conversations, organized by themes such as service and ambiance. These snippets are coupled with sentiment graphs that show what percent of comments are positive, neutral or negative. Together these tools give people a quick way to determine the tone of Web conversations about a place.

Redesigned Home Page: The new Center’d home page highlights enhanced functionality which includes activity styles and personal planning features, as well as existing group collaboration tools. People can quickly pick a style (e.g., romantic) and type of activity (e.g., restaurants) that suit their needs, and Center’d will present relevant search results.

“Distilling the unstructured data available on the web about local places and events is a mammoth task.  The technology we’ve built to address this provides a foundation for us to deliver unique mobile and Web applications to consumers and partners going forward,” said Chandu Thota, co-founder and chief technology officer of Center’d.  “The investment we have made in developing this unique index will prove an increasingly unique competitive advantage as we continue to scale our business.”

New Data Helps People Save Money

As part of the 5 intent classification styles announced today, Center’d has included a “cheap” category designed to help people save money while still enjoying local activities during the recession.  Based on people’s Web conversations Center’d has identified places that are inexpensive, have special promotions or that are free in general.  Places listed in this category include things like cheap restaurants, museums with free admission days, parks and free events, among other places and activities.  People can find cheap things to do in their local area by conducting a search from the new home page, browsing a city guide page, or by filtering search results.

In conjunction with this product release, Center’d has created partner APIs which are currently available by contacting the company directly at bd(at)centerd(dot)com.

About Center’d

Center’d (http://www.centerd.com) helps people plan life’s activities.  The company has developed personal planning features and group collaboration tools that help people plan any type of activity, from finding and discovering things to do, to organizing and coordinating complex events.  Using natural language processing and machine learning, Center’d has created a proprietary activity index that allows people to find things to do based on their intent.  This unique approach and its proprietary activity index enable Center’d to deliver a more relevant and personalized local experience. 

Headquartered in Menlo Park, California, Center’d is led by former Microsoft, Yahoo! and Amazon executives, and is funded by Norwest Venture Partners and KeyNote Ventures.

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MEDIA CONTACT

Dan Visnick

Center’d

dan@centerd.com

Change

Mahatma Gandhi once said “You must be the change you want to see in the world” – at Center’d, individually and collectively we do believe in it as you can see Jennifer Dulski’s blog post this morning. 

Today, after watching President Obama taking the oath there is only one thing on my mind: change.

Change is refreshing – it forces you to challenge your own assertions; it makes you feel incomplete at the very moment it arrives and leaves you hungry for more. It brings in a sense of uncertainty that gives rise to hope and the renewed sense of direction – the change witnessed by billions of people across the globe today is just that. What a day!

Photo theme: Hope is Change / Photo Credit: joel.childs / On my mind: The White House

Need help in organizing your school events?

At Center’d, we can help! We just launched a school events portal to help you busy parents, teachers and volunteers! You can see the details our press release, or you can read the entire release below:

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Menlo Park, CA (PRWEB) January 13, 2009 — Center’d (http://www.centerd.com), the website that helps people plan activities and events of any kind, today unveiled a school event planning center designed to help people plan and coordinate any type of school event, from classroom parties to school fundraisers, to recurring volunteer needs and more. New resources include quick-start planning templates that people can easily copy and customize to meet their own needs, and enhanced sign-up sheet functionality that makes it easier for organizers to manage and coordinate volunteers. The school event planning center is now available at: http://www.centerd.com/plans/s/school-events/.
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Planning Tools Designed to Help Busy Parents:
Since its public launch in June 2008, Center’d has provided busy adults with time-saving tools to plan any type of activity or event. The new planning center provides parents of school-age children with one place where they can find everything they need to plan and coordinate any type of school event. It includes the following features in addition to the existing planning tools offered by Center’d:

Enhanced Sign-Up Sheets: Center’d enables parents and schools to easily recruit and manage volunteers, eliminating the need to use paper sign-up sheets, spreadsheets, and other time-consuming methods. Center’d has improved the usability of its sign-up sheets, including additional editing features, which make it easier to manage multiple and recurring tasks. Center’d makes sure people stay on the same page by sending reminders to volunteers and alerts to organizers if someone backs out of a volunteer spot so it can be filled.

Quick-Start Templates: To help people get started on a plan quickly and easily, Center’d has developed an easy-to-use set of templates that people can copy and customize to meet their own needs in three simple steps. The new templates include guided tips to help organizers get a quick preview of how they can customize a specific plan’s elements. The school center includes a dozen different types of school activity plan templates so people can easily plan events including a school auction, a book fair, a class party, and more. To preview all the templates, visit the school event planning center.

Specialized Customer Support: People who have any questions or need some help getting started can contact the resident school activity planning expert at Center’d, whose contact information is prominently displayed on the school event planning center.

“With spring right around the corner, many parents and teachers will be organizing activities such as picnics and annual fundraisers. By using our new planning resources, they can save time and have a more successful event.” said Jennifer Dulski, co-founder and chief executive officer of Center’d. “The enhanced features and new templates we’ve developed to help schools are also extensible to other organizations that utilize volunteers, such as non-profits, religious organizations and teams.”

What People Are Saying:
The planning tools from Center’d have already found a warm reception among people who plan school activities and events. Following is what a few school event organizers have said about Center’d:

Center’d is one of the best organizational tools I use as a room parent…

“Center’d is one of the best organizational tools I use as a room parent…” – Kim D., Mt. Clemens Montessori School, Mt. Clemens, MI

“Center’d has become an integral part of managing my son’s school lunch volunteer program. It’s the perfect solution…” – Rebecca W., Laurel Elementary School, Menlo Park, CA

“…I encourage all schools who depend on volunteers to embrace this resource – it makes it easy for volunteers to support your organization.” – Lori F., Development Director, Keys School, Palo Alto, CA

For more information about the school resource center and features including quick-start templates, sign-up sheets, and guided tips, check out the new school event planning center.

About Center’d:
Center’d helps people make plans of any kind, from organizing casual activities like a night out with friends to coordinating complex events like a school fundraiser that needs dozens of volunteers. By integrating robust local search and planning tools, Center’d makes coordinating any activity or event seamless and easy. As people make plans, Center’d gathers enhanced data about places that will enable the company to make personalized plan recommendations. This unique approach creates a more relevant experience for consumers as well as more targeted and intent-based advertising opportunities for businesses. Center’d aims to give people all the tools they need to plan all of life’s activities.

Led by former Amazon, Microsoft, and Yahoo! executives, Center’d is headquartered in Menlo Park, California, and is funded by Norwest Venture Partners, KeyNote Ventures, and private angel investors.

Could Microsoft Tag be the catalyst for coupons online?

I was browsing the Microsoft news and found this interesting blog posts about Microsoft Tag in between Windows 7 R2 Beta launch and Ballmer’s CES keynote.

What is Microsoft Tag? Simply put it’s a new bar-code technology that let’s you publish barcodes in print or web mediums that can later be “Scanned” by users using mobile phones to convert to it’s original form. From Microsoft’s website:

The sophisticated technology powering Microsoft Tag, High Capacity Color Barcodes (HCCBs), was invented by Microsoft Research. It was designed from the ground up for maximum performance with the limited cameras on most mobile phones. Advanced image-processing techniques decode even out-of-focus barcode images, which means Microsoft Tag works with the fixed-focus camera lenses common in most mobile devices.

Funny, this whole thing reminds of a QR Code scanner prototype that I built (circa 2005, I was still at Microsoft) for Windows Mobile Camera phones to send and receive driving directions, business listing information etc – but the problems that the MSR team talks about (out of focus images, size of the image and so on) were precisely the reason why my application was abandoned.

But this is very cool stuff – technologies like this coupled with wide spread client software on a wide variety of mobile devices (Android, iPhone and Windows Mobile) could lead to new ways to distribute online coupons, especially in local space.

My head is already buzzing with ideas.

— Chandu Thota, CTO/Co-Founder, Center’d

On my mind: Slanted Door San Francisco

Issues with Local Business Centers

Checking out the “local” blogs buzz this week, I noticed a number of blogs reporting about Google Local Business Center issues and why it’s a failure. In his post, Mike says:

Google needs to understand that Local is different than Search, that accuracy is more important than relevance, and they need to embrace the business listing side of Maps if for no other reason than these folks are the future growth of Adwords. If it takes charging a monthly fee to have the resources to service this side of the business then so be it.

I agree in principle that the companies like Google and my ex-employer should strive to provide a better service (and any company for that matter :), but I’m not so sure about charging local businesses for that service. The problem that Mike is pointing out with Google is just a tip of the iceberg. The problem with local listing sites and pain that a small business owners feel as a result is much deeper and bigger. Why do I say that?

An online listing of a small business is an important identity that the small business owners deeply care about. They not only want to make sure they can be discovered online, but they also want to make sure that the listing information is accurate. Sounds reasonable? Ok, then to achieve that where do they need to go today? Google? Microsoft? Yahoo? Ask? YellowPages? Yelp? Localeze? Merchant Circle? Center’d? Or InfoUSA? All of them?

You see the issue? The issue is that the local directories are fragmented and the small business owners are already spending tons of time online to make sure their information is accurately presented on each and every site (at Center’d we do get a number of emails every single day from SMBs asking either to be listed or to correct the listing) – that is a huge distraction from running their business offline. Now if all these sites start charging them for having a basic listing and keeping it accurate – it’s going to be a huge money sink as well. I’m not against charging small business owners for promoting their business once it is listed and accurate – but having an accurate listing is almost a right that they have and all the websites that do list these owe it to their owne users aswell – after all you don’t want to give a wrong phone number or a wrong address when someone searches on your site.

So what do we really need to help small business owners? We need a federated service that let’s a small business owner to create and control their identity online – then this service pings all the directories (that are registered to get updates) about the updates. Then each directory must sync the data automatically from the central listing created/controlled by the small business owner. The federated service must be free and should some-what be like Wikipedia (or a part of Wikipedia itself?). Sounds too simple? Yes, hard to archive? May be, but not impossible. There are issues around how entities are represented in each directory –  a standards-based entity-definition system and a standards based data format (microformats) is key to realize this.  

When we are seeing a broader trend to move towards an open, portable and standards-based protocols and data formats, isn’t about time to make that “local move” too? What do you think? If you are passionate about this problem and want to do *something* about it, ping me – may be we can do something together!

— Chandu Thota, CTO/Co-Founder, Center’d

On my mind: Central Market Dallas /  Photo theme: Fragmented / Photo credit: Cats_mom

Reading lots of blogs and doing it fast!

Like many geeks, I read a lot of blogs in vertical categories such as web 2.0, social networking, cricket (the sport) etc, and also like many of us I’m pressed for time to read these feeds everyday. Existing feed readers such as google reader are not so helpful in summarizing my feeds such that I can get a snapshot of what’s happening in each vertical; in essence what I need is a smart aggregator that organizes my feeds TechMeme style. 

So, over a weekend, I dug up my old blogvia project that does the natural blog aggregation and clustering and put it to work to test if it can save time for me. The results are promising so far –  the idea is that I create an OPML file from the feeds that I want to read and feed it to the blogvia crawler – and it fetches the feeds, analyzes them using NLP (natural language processing) techniques and aggregates them based on the similarity of the posts (or in other words clustering similar blog posts). You can see early results for local news, iphone and android news, Microsoft blogs, cricket news, mapping and geo news, and celebrity gossip (heck, why not!). If you see the results closely, they are not perfectly clustered, but still lets me scan over 1000 feeds in 15 minutes flat! and hey for a little time that I have spent its not that bad! 🙂

Talking about NLP stuff, We are also using NLP and Semantic stuff at Center’d to solve some of the local planning problems – Jen talked about what we are doing recently at an SDForum presentation – I will post more details as soon as they are available on our site. If you are using NLP stuff in local, I would love to hear your thoughts on how we can push for standards in creating semantic local web.

On my mind – Delfina San Francisco.

— Chandu Thota, CTO/Co-Founder, Center’d

Photo theme: Clusters/Photo credit: Image Editor

Happy new year!

Hope your 2008 was a blast.

Year 2009 is going to be even more exciting – this is going to be an year that forces us to think and do what is much needed in these times: reinforced focus on creating meaningful and valuable products and technologies that push us forward in the right direction (i.e. no more sheep throwing and beer drinking applications).

I know that we are all waking up to rather grim news but there are a lot of things we need to be hopeful about.

Have a wonderful and happy new year 2009!

What are you doing this holidays?

So, the big question these days is what are your plans for the holidays, I say, nothing much, planning to hit code complete on for a couple of interesting features :), and plan fun things to do with 2Hs and T… 

As an an online planning company, we want to make holiday planning easy and simple for you – so we even created a holiday planning center to pull all relevant content from different sections of our site. In this context, couple of days ago I came across a blog post by Isabel Adams that talked about how Center’d saved her time in getting her friends together for the holidays. In that post she said:

I absolutely hate planning things. Overwhelmed by the flurry of overlapping text messages (I’m more of a texter than a caller), the decisions of where to go and what to do, and the question of when everyone can hang out, I go crazy. Clearly, I should not consider event planning as a future career.

With Christmas Break approaching, I decided to look into potential ways to get my old group of friends together AND maintain my sanity. That led me to Center’d, an online planning tool centered on “people, places, and plans.”…

That’s precisely the reason why we created our tool set: from sign-up sheets to task lists to online invitations to place and time voting – we just want you to organize and plan things and keep your sanity – then Isabel continues and says:

Just by logging on I’m given suggestions for where to go or what to see! Plus, if I need to fall back on my tried-and-true locations, I can save them in my “Favorites” section for easy access in the future. Center’d also provides searches for holiday-themed events, has ready-made plans to help you through stressful situations (like finding gifts for everyone on your list), and allows you to “explore” your neighborhood and find restaurants, hotels, bakeries, and other businesses you might not have known about before.

There, in that simple paragraph, she summarized how discovery is a core part of making plans. And that’s why we are tagging all things interesting to bring you places wherever we find them: from romantic places in San Francisco to fun places in Chicago to expensive places in New York – and of course, we also have my all time favorite Cafe Iberico Chicago on our site too 😉

So, what are your plans for the holidays?

Whatever they are, make sure to plan well and be sure to have fun – happy holidays!

Photo credit: jmtimages