Large amounts of data require appropriate visualization for comprehension. Edward Tufte in his books and presentations has tried to make that point, for example by highlighting successful visualizations. When you are presented with only a few items needing your review and understanding, appropriate visualization is not so important. But if there are tens, hundreds, thousands and beyond, depicting those items in useful ways becomes essential.
When presenting web search results, Google takes a completely different strategy by applying a sophisticated ranking algorithm. But this means you will never see (or even have the opportunity to see) anything but the first 1,000 items or so. And in common usage, far fewer. Google does minimal grouping and uses little or no visual cues. A web site consisting of one web page of lies looks pretty much the same as a page from a large, accurate, and well-maintained site.
So it was with a greate deal of hope and interest that I tried out a site that provides visual search results, called Spezify.com. As the search results began to pepper the screen, it became clear that it at least provides plenty of eye candy. But what about the results themselves? Are they good? Do you find useful things?
I’m still evaluating it, but one thing I noticed immediately is that I saw new things. My classic test search for any search engine is my name. Besides vanity, the reasons are that: a) my name is fairly unique, so I get few false drops, and b) I know pretty much what is out there on me and what should be found. But when I searched on my name on Spezify, I found pictures and documents that I hadn’t seen before. One of the nice things Spezify does is that it treats everything equally — it pulls up images, videos, documents, and whatever, and depicts them all visually in a useful fashion.
To be sure, Spezify is not a search engine but a search engine aggregator — it searches a variety of sites, including Yahoo!, Flickr and digg, and merges the results on screen. You can choose to remove sources, but you can’t add any that are not already offered to you. You can also select whether to drop out images, text, or video from your results.
I’m also not saying that Spezify is a great visualization of large amounts of data — although I find it easier to quickly scan and get a sense of what is there, only a relatively small number of overall hits are depicted, and no apparent attempt is made to group or summarize. But I suppose that just leaves room for more innovation. And if I needed to lay a bet on a search engine that could overcome Google’s domination of Internet searching, I would bet on one that did a really good job at visualizing large numbers of results in a useful way that could be easily explored. In other words, we have yet to fully employ the power of visualization. When someone does, stand back. Or better yet, invest.
Thanks to my colleague Eric Childress for bringing this site to my attention.