Google search making use of Social Graph information???

Today, while I was searching for my name in Google, I saw that towards the end, it showed my Delicious bookmarks in the search results. There is definitely no occurrence of my name in the pages that were listed in the search results and the only connection I could see between ‘me’ and the search result is that I have bookmarked these links in Delicious.

Is Google making use of the Social Graph information that I provided while I was trying out Google Friendconnect? Doesn’t this raise privacy concerns?

Why it is the way it is – an analysis of the proposal by TimBL of the WWW

Ever wonder why hyperlinks in the World Wide Web (WWW) are unidirectional? Why are links not typed? Why are links many to one and not many to many? Why do browsers have the restrictions that they have today? Why is the web the way it is?

A lot of the answers to these questions are hidden somewhere deep in the web itself. Having come across several technical issues with the web, I began to wonder what the initial creators of the web perceived the web to be? What was running in the minds of the users when they came across the idea of the web?

I started tracing back into history to the very beginning of the WWW. That’s how I came across the ‘original proposal of the WWW‘.

So here are some of my notes on the paper:
(Content in italic are from the paper.)

Use cases for the WWW

The initial use-cases for the WWW were related to project management – communicating project ideas, storing technical details for retrieval later, finding out who wrote a piece of code, fetching all related documents for the current task. Most of the proposal revolves around the system to allow for multiuser hypertext access which is non-centralized and non-hierarchical.

Relationship to relational databases

Linked information systems have entities and relationships. There are, however, many differences between such a system and an “Entity Relationship” database system. For one thing, the information stored in a linked system is largely comment for human readers. For another, nodes do not have strict types which define exactly what relationships they may have. Nodes of similar type do not all have to be stored in the same place.

What does this mean?
We do have entities and relationships, but there are no fixed rules. Entities don’t need to have types and any two entities can be related to each other. There is also no restriction on where the entities are stored.

Hypertext

The key ideas around Hypertext were put down by Vanevar Bush in 1945 in the form of Memex. There were several attempts by people to implement Hypertext and also Hypermedia (linking images, video etc). Ted Nilson coined the word Hypertext in 1965 and subsequently also coined the term Hypermedia. The first implementation of Hypertext in some form seems to be from Doug Engelbart in 1968. The buzz around Hypertext picked up during the late 1980’s – there was a dedicated Usenet newsgroup, a bunch of conferences starting with Hypertext’87, several ACM papers, workshops etc. All this happened even before the WWW was born. There were several commercial products too, like Hypercard from Apple.

TimBL had also tried his hands at building a hypertext system, which he called Enquire. TimBL claims to have built it as early as 1980, although the first mention of Enquire seems to be in this proposal made in 1989.

When I started researching on Hypercard features, I realized one thing. These products are easily 20 years old. Technology has changed a lot in this time. It is really hard to imagine how many of these products looked like. Either the source is not available in its entirety or it is tough to compile. This reminds me of what Grady Booch said – about having an archive of source code similar to the archive of books, videos, music and web pages.

Anyway, the most important difference I see between Enquire and Hypercard is that Enquire was more of a ‘programmers playtool’, while Hypercard was targeted towards end-users.

So while Hypercard had ‘fancy graphics’, Enquire had typed links and was available for multi user access.

WWW requirements

About the requirements that TimBL put down for the WWW:
* Remote access across networks, Heterogeneity, Non-Centralisation – These are what are now taken for granted. The WWW is ubiquitous, it never breaks as a system, it can be accessed from just about any device that is Internet aware.
* Access to existing data – This was one of the reasons why the WWW became popular. It was easy to get existing data onto the web with minimal effort.
* Private links –
One must be able to add one’s own private links to and from public information. One must also be able to annotate links, as well as nodes, privately.
Frankly, I am not sure what TimBL means by private links ‘from’ public information.
* Bells and Whistles – Graphical access to the web was considered optional.
* Data analysis – This is one thing that has not taken off.
It is possible to search, for example, for anomalies such as undocumented software or divisions which contain no people. It is possible to generate lists of people or devices for other purposes, such as mailing lists of people to be informed of changes.
It is also possible to look at the topology of an organisation or a project, and draw conclusions about how it should be managed, and how it could evolve. This is particularly useful when the database becomes very large, and groups of projects, for example, so interwoven as to make it difficult to see the wood for the trees.

The Semantic Web is showing this promise.
* Live links – These are what are now called ‘Dynamic pages’ and most popular pages on the web are ‘live’ in that sense.

The implementation

Much of the academic research is into the human interface side of browsing through a complex information space. Problems addressed are those of making navigation easy, and avoiding a feeling of being “lost in hyperspace”. Whilst the results of the research are interesting, many users at CERN will be accessing the system using primitive terminals, and so advanced window styles are not so important for us now.

As I read this, it gives me a feeling that TimBL was not thinking of making the WWW a ‘public’ web that would be used by just about everyone. Even a non-techie could build a page of content and hook it onto the web. Usability seemed to be of least importance.

The only way in which sufficient flexibility can be incorporated is to separate the information storage software from the information display software, with a well defined interface between them.

This division also is important in order to allow the heterogeneity which is required at CERN (and would be a boon for the world in general).

A client/server split at this level also makes multi-access more easy, in that a single server process can service many clients, avoiding the problems of simultaneous access to one database by many different users.
‘information display software’ – Now that’s what the browser is! Also this is what created the need for HTTP, HTTP server and HTML.

Conclusion

Do we still visualize the web as just content linked via Hypertext? How can we accommodate social networking and the whole realm of developments around Web 2.0 and social network applications?

The web has surely come a long way!

(Note: Draft content – subject to change)

YQL – Yahoo’s query language for the web

This post is a part of the AfterThoughts series of posts.

Post: A query language for searching websites
Originally posted on: 2005-01-27

I blogged about the idea of a query language for websites back in 2005. Today, when I was doing my feed sweep, I came across YQL, a query language with SQL-like syntax from Yahoo that allows you to query for structured data from various Yahoo services.

There is one thing that I found interesting. The ability for you to query ‘any’ HTML page for data at a specific XPath. There are some details in the official Yahoo Developer blog.

The intent of YQL is not the same as what I had blogged about. While YQL allows you to get data from a specific page, what I had intended was something more generic – an ability for you to query a set of pages or the whole of the web for specific data, which is a tougher problem to solve.

In order to fetch specific data from a HTML page using YQL, all you have to do is:
1. Go to the page that you want to extract data from.
2. Open up Firebug and point to the data that you want to extract (using Inspect).
3. Right click the node in Firebug and click on ‘Copy XPath’.
4. Now create a query in YQL like this:
select * from html where url=”” and xpath=”

Although the idea seems promising I wasn’t able to get it to work for most XPaths.

I guess the reason is the difference between the way the browser interprets the HTML and the way a server would interpret it. For example, if there is no ‘tbody’ tag in your table, the Firefox browser inserts a ‘tbody’ tag and that would be present in your XPath, while a server that interprets the HTML after Tidying it wouldn’t see one. One way we can solve this is to have the same engine interpret the XPath on the server side as well or be as lenient as possible when matching the XPaths. I had similar discussions with the research team in IRL when I was working on my idea of MySearch, which had similar issues, and there were some interesting solutions that we discussed.

I would say it is only a matter of time when someone will crack the issue of fetching structured data from semi-structured data present in the web and make it available to other services. Tools like Dapper, Yahoo Pipes, YubNub and YQL are just the beginning.

I have made several attempts at this right from using one of these tools, to building my own using Rhino, Jaxer etc, but until now the most content solution is a combination of curl, grep, awk and sed.

weRead – what’s new?

Ever since I blogged about iRead back in April, a lot has changed. We have introduced tons of new features, and there is really not one place where we have captured all of them.

So this is my attempt to describe the features to our readers.

  • iRead is now called weRead and we have partnered with Lulu
    This post from our official blog has more details.
  • We now have a destination site
    You don’t have to login to Facebook or some social network to access weRead. You can directly access your bookshelf from our destination site. If you have already used weRead in Facebook or one of the social networks, you can link your account and access the same account from the destination site.
  • Connections – find people like you
    This Facebook feature allows you to find people who have similar book tastes like you. You can look for people of a specific gender, people in your network and people in specific age groups.
  • We now have friend activities in the homepage
    We now show activities from your friends on weRead in the homepage. This helps you keep track of which books your friends have been reading, and if they have participated in any discussions.
  • Book discussion boards
    This is the place to discuss with your friends and network about your favorite books, what you liked, what you didn’t like, why someone should or shouldn’t read a book.
  • Author discussion boards
    If you want to discuss about a specific author, talk about what works of an author are good, or what you would expect his next book to be like, this is the place to do it. Check out the latest discussions here.
  • Author profile claim
    Are you an author? Then you should be on weRead. weRead makes it ultra simple for you to setup a profile and interact with your readers. Writing a new book? Want to know who might like it? Want to get suggestions from your readers? Want to promote your book on various social networks? Start here
  • New catalogs
    We now have catalogs from Amazon, Google and OCLC integrated into weRead. This means you have a whole range of books to choose from. More catalogs are coming soon.
  • weRead is now available in multiple languages
    weRead is now available in 6 different languages – English(US), English(UK), German, French, Spanish (on Hi5 only) and Portuguese (on Orkut only). We have more languages being added soon. Want weRead in a local language? Help us translate weRead here.
  • We now have limited previews of books from Harper Collins and Google Books and full preview of some books from Gutenburg
    This will give you some sort of a ‘bookstore experience’ by allowing you to preview books.
  • See how a book fares in your network
    Curious to know how a book has been rated by people in your network? We now give you near realtime statistics about a book – how people have rated the book in your network, how many people own the book, how many have marked it favorite etc.
  • Readers now have a profile page which displays their bookshelf
    Each weRead user gets his/her own personal page that they can then share with their friends, bookmark, etc. In order to set up your own profile page, link your account from Facebook to our destination site and click on the “Profile” link in the top blue bar. Check out my profile page here.
  • Readers can showcase their bookshelf in their blogs and other sites
    Want to advertise your bookshelf in your blog? It’s simple! Go to your profile page and then click on ‘Take weRead with you’, get the code and put it in your blog. You also have some customization that you can do before you get the code. Check out a demo here.
  • The Facebook Wall application allows you to post information about books, write reviews etc directly from the Facebook Wall.
    You can now chuck a book at your friends directly from the Facebook wall. Go to your Facebook profile page: http://www.facebook.com/profile.php. Under the Wall tab, you should see the Books iRead option. Clicking this opens a dialog that allows you to pick a book from your shelf or search for a book and chuck this at your friend.
  • Similar authors
    Under every book detail page, we show similar authors that will help you discover authors who write books similar to the one that you are viewing.
  • Mis-spelt searches
    weRead now has builtin suggestions in case you make a misspell some work while typing your query.
  • See more like this
    We have launched some kind of a ‘Stumble upon’ feature. When you are viewing a book in weRead, you will see a button ‘See more like this’, clicking which, takes you to a random but related book.
  • External integration with OCLC
    We now power the OCLC related books and reviews.
  • We have also moved to bigger and more powerful servers, which means a better user experience for all our readers.

As you see, we have been busy! We have tons of new and exciting features lined up and we promise to provide feature updates as frequently as possible. A lot of these features revolve around making weRead a truly social application.

By the way, you can get some quick updates on weRead in our Twitter page.

Happy reading!

PS: Features and feature names are subject to change.

It’s official – Lulu partners with weRead

So finally the news has been made official.

Lulu today announced partnership with weRead (iRead).

Lulu is a platform that enables wanna be authors, musicians and other creators to bring their work directly to their audience. Publishing is free, and the lack of middlemen means that the freedom lies in the hands of the creator. Lulu was founded by Bob Young, co-founder of Red Hat and an extremely successful entrepreneur. Lulu is the world’s fastest-growing provider of print-on-demand books.

With this partnership, there are several exciting things that we are looking at.

With weRead, Lulu users now get a simple way to make their creation available on all popular social networking sites and promote their work. As for weRead, users get a much larger catalog of books, some of them which are not available anywhere else.

Well, this is definitely just the tip of the iceberg and we see several other exciting things ahead.

News about the partnership from the Lulu site:
“Lulu (www.lulu.com), the world’s largest marketplace for individual, educational, and corporate authors and publishers to bring their books directly to market, announced today an alliance with weRead (www.weread.com), the leading social networking application for books where readers can easily discover and recommend books to their friends on social networks and therefore, the world.”

Over the next few weeks, you should see several new features on weRead. There is one theme that we are concentrating on – make weRead more social, which is why we thought it makes better sense to name it weRead rather than iRead.

The future now looks promising!

The Afterthoughts – If Google came up with an RSS Reader

So here is another post in The Afterthoughts series.

Post: If Google came up with an RSS Reader
Originally posted on: 2005-01-30

This post was made long before Google came up with Google Reader. I was experimenting with RSS readers and started wondering what it would be like if Google came up with an RSS reader.

Now that we have one from Google, it is time to look back and see how my expectations matched with the actual product.

> * It would first buy the domain “greader” or something similar.
This didn't happen. However, Google Reader is popularly called GReader. I guess I made this comment because of Gmail.
On a side note, Google does own greader.net.

> * It would have an index of more than 8 million different feeds.
This is not how an RSS reader has evolved. Google Reader does have recommendations based on the feeds you already have. It would be good to see an integration of Google Blogsearch or even Google News with Google Reader. The only integration I see is the subscription of search results from both of these in Google Reader (a 'new' feature).

> * It would offer 1 GB space for storing posts.
The storage in most online readers is unlimited.

> * It would have an excellent search feature for searching posts.
This was a surprise! The feature came in so late. Totally unexpected.

> * The interface would be simple, but at the same time powerful.
You bet this has been true. The keyboard shortcuts are just superb. The speed with which you can navigate and read feeds is extremely good. (You will need my script to make it even faster. :))

> * We would be able to mail any post just at the click of a button.
I guess this feature has been around since quite some time now.

> * It would allow us to filter posts and also label them for future reference.
With tagging and folders, this has been better than expected.

> * It would also allow us to make blog entries (of course the service would be integrated with Blogger.)
Again, this is a surprise. Google has not provided any integration with Blogger. However, recently Google added a feature to share an item with notes. With the microblogging revolution, and Google having acquired Jaiku, I guess that integration will happen first.

> * It would integrate greader with other offerings like mail, groups etc.
The integration is not that great as of now. It would be cool to see posts related to a mail, or a message in a group etc.

> It would be Beta forever. 🙂
Surprise! This isn't true!

Final thoughts:
So after more than 3 years since I made the original post, (which is a lot of time in technological evolution) I should say, Google did match most of the expectations that I had back then, some features were developed much better than what I had expected. However the integration with other services is one thing where it could have done better.

How to ensure that your extensions work on Firefox 3.0

Here are the steps that I found useful to port my extensions from Firefox 2.0 to 3.0:

  • Step 1: Just start Firefox and allow it to update the extensions. You could go to: Tools -> Add-ons -> Extensions -> Find updates.
    This should update many of the extensions. Restart Firefox.
  • Step 2: For those extensions where the auto-update has not functioned properly, you might want to manually see if an update is available. This is because for some extensions, the auto-update may not recognize that a new version is available.
    • Uninstall the older version and restart Firefox.
    • Search for the addons here and add them.
  • Step 3: Install the MR Tech Toolkit extension.
  • Step 4: For those extensions that have still not been updated and you need desperately, just see if the option 'Make compatible' from MR Tech. This option is available when you right click an extension in the Extension tab. If the compatibility range is upto some older version of 3.0 (for example 3.0b5) then this might work.
  • Step 5: Look for updates at a higher frequency over the next few days. Developers will be forced to ensure that their extension works in new version of Firefox so you can expect an update soon.

The Afterthoughts – Gmail forwarding and service interoperability – an interesting observation

“The Afterthoughts” is a series where I revisit some of my older blog entries and see how things have changed since the time I made the blog post and now.

The posts that I will choose initially will be from 2004 to 2006.

So here is the first one in the series:

Post: Gmail forwarding and service interoperability – an interesting observation
Originally posted on: 2005-11-21

The entry goes about explaining how when you connect various services together, you could end up with the same information multiple times.

This is increasingly becoming a problem these days. Services like Twitter and Friendfeed are not solving the problem elegantly, so you see more and more duplicates and links to the original post.

Here is a typical scenario today:
I make a blog entry. In order to ensure that my readers see my post immediately, I have a service that automatically posts a message in Twitter. This is like instantly messaging my friends (actually Twitter followers) telling them, “Look, I made a blog entry”.

Now, I use a lot of Web 2.0 services. So, in order to ensure that all my friends have a single feed to follow my activities, I use some aggregator like FriendFeed or Tumblr.

Some friend of yours (let's call him Bob) likes your blog entry and bookmarks it on del.icio.us. Another friend, Andrews bookmarks it in Magnolia.

Let us now say, there is another person Dave, who is a friend of you, Bob and Andrews. He is following all 3 of us in Friendfeed.

How many entries is Dave going to see of the original entry?
6 in total! 3 from you – 1 from your blog post directly, 1 from Twitter, 2 from Tumblr (1 via the blog post and 1 via Twitter), 1 from Bob via del.icio.us and 1 from Andrews via Magnolia.

The screenshot shows duplicate entries from mashable's blog feed and from Twitter:

Now this is real noise. And this is more true if Dave is not even interested in the blog post to begin with.

So the solution?
Friendfeed allows you to hide specific feeds from specific people. For example, Dave can hide all bookmarks from Bob or all Tumblr entries from me.

Now that is not a good solution because not all bookmarks from Bob are duplicates.

Tools like Feedblendr and Blogbridge have solved this problem for simple RSS aggregation. However things are different when it comes to social network and aggregation.

So right now there is no simple way of detecting duplicates and more and more people are complaining about this in the blogosphere explaining how Friendfeed is more noise than information and why the good old Google Reader is still relevant.

Here is one such discussion. As the discussion suggests, it is not just about eliminating duplicates; it also requires you to merge discussions/comments in each of these posts keeping in mind that not everyone is a friend of everyone else.

So what has changed over the last 2 years?
If anything, the problem has become a tougher one. I am sure the startup that does duplicate elimination and gives you a filtered feed taking your social networks into consideration is going to be the next hyped startup in the Web 2.0 world.

Privacy disasters with aggregation services

Imagine you have a host of aggregation services like Friendfeed, Tumblr, Suprglu, Lifestreams connected to each other, such that each one is reading from your various feeds and republishing the content.

Now imagine a disaster where one of these services, say Twitter, suddenly, because of some flaw, exposes your private messages.

It's like a Tsunami that cannot be controlled! Your private data would flow into various input streams in a matter of seconds and there is no turning back.

Things will only get worse with activity feeds and Beacon.

The bottom line is: Be careful about where your data is going and what data you put online.

iRead – a social book discovery revolution

It has been a while since I thought I should write a review of iRead.

weread logo iRead is a social book discovery application. It has been quite successful on Facebook and has a very large userbase. Currently iRead has a total install base of about 1.4 million users, mostly from Facebook.

So what do we mean by social book discovery?

iRead is not just about maintaining a bookshelf online. It tries to bring the social aspect into picture. ‘social’? iRead depends a lot on your social network. You can share your bookshelf with your friends, learn what your friends are reading and what their reading tastes are. You can discuss about books in various book clubs. You could participate in Quizzes or even add your own. You can find out how compatible your reading tastes are with other people in the network. iRead does not require a separate registration. It is available right in your social network. (As of now the application is available in Facebook, Orkut, MySpace, Hi5 and Bebo.) So when we are talking about friends, we are talking about your friends from the network where you are using iRead. So if you use iRead in Facebook, you see your Facebook friends in iRead, while in Orkut you see your Orkut friends. Many a times, all it requires is to just add the application to your profile. ‘book discovery’? For one, iRead provides recommendations based on your reading tastes. Then there are various other mechanisms by which you can discover new books to read. Let’s explore some.

Several ways to browse

* You could first start off by searching for books and adding them to your bookshelf. This helps us learn about your tastes and recommend books that you may like. * When searching, you could either enter the name of the book, or its author, or if you know the ISBN, you could enter that. * If you want to just browse through the application you could start off by looking at what other iReaders are doing. The home page shows the most recent activity in the network.

* So let’s say you find some interesting book. Just click on the book and you are taken to the book details. Here you get to know how many readers the book has, how many reviews people have written for the book and get some instant user reviews and an editorial review. You can also find out similar other books.

* If you see that the book is interesting, just click on the ‘See All’ reviews link. This will display all the reviews for the book. Read the ones you like and you will soon learn what the book is about.

* Since there are multiple ways to reach your data, your reviews are never buried. So even if you are writing a review for a book, that already has a thousand reviews, you can expect your review to be read by other iReaders. * If the book interests you, you might want to check out other books by the same author. Just click on the author’s name. This will show all books by the author. You could also click on the small icon next to the author’s name to search for the author in Author’s corner. This will give you other details like the profile of the author, what others think about the author, how many fans the author has etc.

* Author’s corner is a forum for readers to interact with their favorite authors. So if you are the author of a book and are looking for a forum to interact with your readers, this is where you should be. Author’s corner allows authors to maintain their profile, and also learn about their readers’ expectations. * While reading reviews, you might find that the review from a particular user is very interesting. You might now want to look at this reader’s bookshelf. Many a times, I have found this to be a good mechanism to discover new books. You can get an assurance of how close your tastes are by looking at the number of common books amongst you. Ok, now you might want to look at other reviews by this reader. * You could also contact the reader by leaving a wall post/scrap. * You may also want to check out who among your friends is on iRead and what they are reading. Click on the Friends link in the header. If you want to know about your friends’ reading tastes and they are not yet on iRead you could invite them to add the application.

* For selected books, you could even browse inside the book. A lot of out of copyright books are available for free online viewing. Some other selected books are available for limited preview.

Other features worthy of mention

Take your reads with you


So what if you are in all these networks and want to use iRead everywhere? iRead has a feature to import your bookshelf from Facebook to Orkut, MySpace and/or Hi5. Once imported, you will see the same bookshelf in all the networks. However the friends shown to you depends on the network you are currently in.

Import books from other sources


If you have been maintaining books in some other place, you may want to try importing books using the import books option. The link to this is found below the search box.

Add a book

Can’t find a book you want to add to your bookshelf? You can add it to our catalog. The link to add a book is found below the search box. So what’s more?! Happy iReading! Disclaimer: I work for Ugenie and am part of the iRead application development team. The views expressed here are my own and not necessarily those of Ugenie.