Category Archives: Visual Engines

Bing’s Visual Search

Bing is playing around with some new visual search functionality. Check it out here: Bing Visual Search.

Have a look here at US Presidents. I like the layout – it’s clean and easy to see a lot of images at once. It’s cool how you can mouse over each thumb and the search box automatically populates; and under the search box there is a bit of structured data about each President. However, it’s not so easy to navigate through all the images if you’re looking for something in particular, especially if you look at something with a whole bunch of things like dog breeds.

Search UI

When I first started at Y! I told one of the search team’s senior managers that the biggest changes we’d see in the next year would be in the UI. That was a year and a half ago and not much has changed I’m sorry to say. I was remembering this because of Danny Sullivan’s article Why Search Sucks & You Won’t Fix It The Way You Think.

When a major engine with its own index introduce a new UI, that’ll be compelling. Maybe one of the major engines could introduce an alternative interface on a different URL. Oh wait, AlltheWeb Livesearch is Yahoo’s version of that, and there is Google Suggest. But these aren’t really changing the results pages so much as improving user interaction with the query box.

The problem is that every single pixel on the GYM results pages is so ridiculously valuable that to change anything is a major undertaking. The other problem is that a search results page is all things to all people. The current UI, a text-based list of results, may not be the ultimate experience, but in general it works. You asked a large-scale information system a question and you got a list of document summaries from its corpus.

I’ve spent lots of time playing around with visual search engines like Kartoo, Clusty, Musicplasma, Mooter, and others. But although I wrote reviews of all those engines, the truth is I only use Yahoo search and I never use visual engines. Those visual engines are cool and I respect what they’re trying to do, but they just haven’t clicked with me yet.


Type of engine: Visual search.

Relevancy of results:Needs improvement.
Freshness of results:Needs improvement.
Features and functionality:Good.
Quality of help and “about us” pages:Average.
Business model:They sell a variety of search packages that can be reviewed on their solutions page.

Remember a few years ago when you were sitting at your desk one slow afternoon and you got an email about a cool new search tool called Kartoo? The sender wrote something like, “You’ve got to check this out. It’s really cool.” And you checked it out and you thought, “Yeah, that is cool.” Remember that day? I certainly do. And then remember what happened next? Every time someone asked you about a cool search tool, you said, “Have you seen Kartoo?”
For years, “cool search engine” has been synonymous with Kartoo. In fact, check out the Yahoo results for cool search engine. What is that in position #1? It’s none other than Kartoo.

But here is the big question: besides calling Kartoo cool, how often do you use it? If you’re like me, the answer is seldom. So I decided to take a closer look at Kartoo and investigate its usefulness beyond the cool factor.

Kartoo launched on April 25, 2002 and since then has gained a reputation as the visual web search engine. On Google, MSN and Yahoo, the search visual search engine returns Kartoo in the first position. Kartoo offers a unique experience because although they are another meta-search engine, their search is based on their “visual display interface”, as they call it. The visual interface uses Macromedia Flash, though, they do offer an HTML version as well.

Kartoo has a legend for their visual display so that you can identify things such as Sponsored Sites, recently updated pages, clusters, certain file types, and domain types (.org, .net, .com). These are all useful designations but it takes some practice to get used to them. There is a lot to look at on a Kartoo results page, or map as it’s called, and so it’s not easy to distinguish some of the subtle visual clues that are available.

Kartoo offers Boolean and other advanced search syntax. Take a look at their Key Tips page for more about this. They state that by adding a question mark at the end of a query, Kartoo interprets the query as a natural language query. But I tried what is the population of Scotland? and then what year did Kartoo launch? and did not find the results useful. The Kartoo interface is not built for natural language searches because you have to mouse-over each result looking to see if it has your answer. And even doing that I could not find the answers I was looking for.

There is a FAQs page that gives more explanations about their technology. One particular question I found interesting is this one:
Is KartOO technology more pertinent than other search engines?
“It often is but not always… In fact, KartOO technology analyses the words you are asking for and then decides to question the most accurate search engines….As to the notion of relevance: when you ask for the word “ray” for example, you may mean the sea animal or the light device. The results you obtain may therefore be accurate or totally irrelevant to what you are looking for.
What is significant about KartOO in such a situation is that this technology provides a map that summarizes all the various and possible topics so that retrieved sites are in fact grouped into a form of topical “family”. A list, i.e., a linear classification of search results, could not represent all the applications connected to a word like “nuclear” for example, and above all, a list could not display the links existing between the applications.”

In other words, Kartoo’s visual interface acts as a clustering engine because it lets users look horizontally across a broad selection of sites quicker than going through a linear list. As their example states, this can be particularly effective for ambiguous queries where the searcher is trying to understand various meanings of the search term. Though it is my opinion that if someone is searching for info about something like the planet Saturn they will type in Saturn the planet rather than the ambiguous Saturn. But in any case I am a big believer in clustering even though I also think engines can expect searchers to help them out a bit.

The search results are a bit slow, but they distract you by showing a neat looking genie who is deep in thought.

One thing that bothered me is that after I clicked on something in the map (that is to say, the search results page), I could not go back one step. I had to reload the original query. It’s really frustrating that I can’t take one step backwards. You can do so when you click on the Next Map link down in the lower right hand corner, there is an option to go back to Previous Map, but not if you click on a topic. There is a drop-down list of my recent searches so I can get back that way. However, the interface let me down because my queries were too long so I can’t tell the difference between “raymond chandler” “dashiell hammett” and “raymond chandler” “dashiell hammett” mystery because the words get cut off.

On the search results page if you mouse over the paper looking icons you’ll see the text summary for the site appear to the left. I should mention a small thing, but something I like. When I click on a site, Kartoo counts the number of times I click on it. That’s helpful with a visual interface so that I can quickly see the paths I have already traveled.

I’ve been reading, and really enjoying, some classic hard-boiled mysteries by the masters Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I wanted to know what influence Hammett had on Chandler. What did Chandler think of Hammett’s stories?

I searched very generally, just using the men’s names, “raymond chandler” “dashiell hammett”. The first thing I did was to click on the two links that figure most prominently in the middle of the map. The first one is a Wal-Mart page selling a book called “Hard Boiled Mystery Writers: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald.” OK, that is relevant to my search terms, but I was not looking for a shopping site selling a book about the writers. I was looking for information on the web about the writers. It turns out the second link is also a retail site selling the same book, only it’s from and it doesn’t have the three paragraph summary that the Wal-Mart site has.

Two of the results on the map were classified as articles, (in other words, there is a yellow line that connects the listings with the word “articles” implying that both listings are related to that topic) which sounded promising. One was in French and the other was from High Beam, but to view it I needed to sign up with them.

To summarize the remainder of my experience for this first search, each site I clicked on was either a shopping site selling the book I mentioned earlier or a page in French, with one exception: there was a detailed bibliography of Raymond Chandler that includes this nice quote, “Dashiell Hammett may have shown how mean those streets could be, but Raymond Chandler imagined a man who could go down those streets who was not himself mean.” Not exactly a detailed comparison, but a good quote nonetheless.

Over on the left side of the page is a list of twenty related topics. Normally I would acknowledge that my query isn’t very good and would refine or adjust it accordingly. But in this case I will use Kartoo’s related topics as my refinement.

Here are some of them:
Hardboiled mystery writers, Ross MacDonald, Auteur, Roman, Article, Amazon, Fiction, Hard, Library, Mystery, Writers, Book, Matthew

I clicked on hardboiled mystery writers. Doing so creates a new set of topics, some of which are good, such as detective fiction. Some of which are not so good, like isbn and featured.
I noticed that there are different Amazon country sites showing up, such as .UK. and .CA.. There are also other shopping sites like Overstock. Along with these shopping sites there are a couple of decent sites such as a Dashiell Hammett bibliography from a fan site that lists four books about the two writers.

I also noticed that even though I limited my search to English pages only, there were still French results.

Not having much luck with my Chandler and Hammett query, it is time to try a whole different user mission. Lately there has been a lot of news here in California about the resignation of the Secretary of State. So I decided it would be a good idea to learn more about just what exactly that position entails.
I searched for California secretary of state job functions. A cursory glance through the results shows a variety of suggested topics that are not quite relevant. There is logistique supply chain, California whitewater, vacation, features, and so forth. None of the related topics offered me anything useful.

Turning to the site results, there is a site about long distance phone rates, another about whitewater rafting, and a travel site. There is also a report written by the former Secretary of State in 2000. As with the related topics, none of these results are helpful to me.

I clicked on the next map and was shown some job listings, a hotel site, a vacation home rental site and so forth. Again, nothing to help me understand the job functions of this position.

I refined my search and entered in California secretary of state responsibilities. Again there are vacation rental listings, a cat breeder site, a computer store, insurance company, long distance phone service, and so forth. Again, nothing close to my user mission.

So what is going on here? I am seeing some obvious issues. One is that shopping sites are being boosted high in results. Although I can see why some shopping sites would be returned for my Chandler/Hammett search, these should have been a relatively small percentage of the result set. And for my Secretary of State search there should have been few if any commercial sites. It seems like the word California created a slew of false positives which would explain the vacation rental and whitewater rafting sites.

Another area I see for improvement is the related topics. By way of comparison, I tried California Secretary of State responsibilities on Clusty and got some relevant clusters, such as Kevin Shelleyand Office of the California Secretary of State. And in the list of results is this helpful site called State Executive Branch Overview that has a section called What are the Duties of the Secretary of State?

And lastly, the results are not fresh. There were too many results from several years ago appearing in my maps. I realize that Kartoo is a meta-search engine so they are relying on external indexes, but they should still be able to improve upon relevancy, topics and freshness of results from the engines they are pulling from.

So yes, there is no doubt that Kartoo is cool looking, but it really needs to create better topics and to return more relevant sites in order for it to be useful. Right now I consider Kartoo a novelty with great potential more than a really useful search tool. It may be that the web search is just their way of getting attention to the search solutions that they are selling, but if that is the case I think it is all the more reason to improve upon the web search part of their business.



Type of Engine: Visual and clustering.
Overall: Good.
If this engine were a drink it would be…an Emu Export, it’s Australian, has a funny name, I’d never heard of it until very recently, and it’s a safe bet that you’ve never heard of it.

Mooter is a visual clustering search engine and I like it. They’re from Australia and have been live only about a year.

According to their Technology site, which actually provides some useful information about what they’re up to, “Mooter gets it results from its own spidering, and a unique index of websites. While we are growing, we are supplementing our index with metasearch, and comparing the results from various engines before applying our analysis algorithms.” This is an interesting statement and I’m not exactly sure what they mean by it. If I had to guess it sounds like they’re spidering other engines’ indexes to create their clusters. Is this different from what Clusty or Clush does? I’m not sure, but would love to know the answer. Please email me if you know. It sounds like they plan to generate an entire web index, but that could be wishful thinking.

UI and Features
For the most part I like their interface, it’s simple and almost cheesy, but somehow likable. The Overture supplied Sponsored Links are killing me though. When you click into a cluster, the Sponsored Links take up nearly half the screen; bad, very bad.

You can click “All Results” to get the full list of results. Mooter maxes out at 120 results, or at least I didn’t find any queries that produced more than that.

If you don’t like the first cluster you see, click on the “Next Clusters” icon (the icon needs some improvement; it looks like a cluster of red pimples) to see another cluster.

Query Example
For phrase searches, each word usually becomes a cluster. For the search “William Styron” one of the clusters was “William.” Not good, but then I clicked on the cluster link and the sites were indeed about William Styron, and not just any old William. But still a “William” cluster doesn’t really help me.

Even if the name of a cluster doesn’t sound relevant, the links contained therein were generally on target. So I’d say they’re getting the back-end organization of clusters correct, but what they need to do is improve their cluster names and concepts. Maybe more phrase matching rather than pulling out just single terms, as if I know what I’m talking about.

They could also make the visual part of their results more compelling. As it is right now, it almost doesn’t need to be visual because the visual part of it doesn’t add much beyond novelty (and even the novelty is wearing off as more Kartoo-style visual engines appear).


Overall: Average quality, yet still very enjoyable to play around with.
If this engine were a drink it would be…a mint julep. It’s not your everyday drink, but you’ll find it a sweet break from the norm.

Musicplasma is a music search tool that lets you discover music artists similar to ones you already like. Oh, and it’s visual, like Kartoo.

I’m not really sure how they determine similarities. If I had to guess I’d say they base it on an ontology of genres (rock, rap, etc.), and on mining something like Amazon’s “Customers who bought that, also bought these” type of functionality.
UI and Features
You can zoom in or out on clusters, thereby focusing or expanding your view of similar artists.

Clicking on the links – those ethereal lines – scrolls the page in that direction. Nice feature!
Clicking on other clusters will refocus the clusters around that artist.
The Design panel allows for changing colors and other appearances if you’re into that kind of thing.

Query Examples
Sometimes the clusters make total sense. Try a search for Guided by Voices and the closest cluster will be Robert Pollard, the lead singer who has done solo albums. Sometimes the clusters are a bit off. Try searching for David Byrne and for some reason Paul Westerberg – lead singer of the Replacements – comes between Byrne and the Talking Heads. I’m not saying that’ss incorrect, but my first reaction was surprise. It could be accurate that people who like David Byrnes’ solo stuff, which doesn’t sound much like the Talking Heads, might like Paul Westerberg, Warren Zevon and Roxy Music (all closer than the Talking Heads).
I noticed that powerhouses like the Rolling Stones and Neil Young shows up in lots of places. I searched for Prince Buster, the 60s ska pioneer, and there’s Neil’s cluster. A search for Bad Brains similarly showed the Stones lurking one link away. Now obviously Neil Young and the Stones have influenced tons of groups, but I’m not sure that Bad Brains should be one link away. Anyone know why that would be?

I’d like to know more about the links. Is one artist linked to another because they collaborated? Or are they linked because they play similar music? Or are on the same label?
OK, so it’ss fun to play with, but give me some song samples.
How about letting me type in more than one group so I can really focus in?
Focus by time period. I really like early Stones, when they sounded like, say the Small Faces, but I hate recent Stones, when they sound like, say crap.

Musicplasma is fun to play with, but it needs to be more practical. Take the visual music search engine and turn it into an audio search engine. If that’s too far-flung, then at least show more context on how artists are linked. But like I said, it sure is fun…