Web Design: How to find real gems

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Indy Lifestyle Online
INFORMATION may want to be free, but tracking down the information you need can be a real pain. Yes, having more content at your disposal may increase the chance that you will find something of interest, but it also means sifting through the compost to find exactly what you are looking for.

Last week I talked about the way filters are used in traditional mediums to decide what content is seen by audiences. These filters are the people in authority who control the limited outlets for information. However, the Web has subverted this process by removing the physical barriers that have prevented individuals from getting their message out in the traditional mediums (TV, radio, print). Whether that message is a new work of fiction or a listing for a bed and breakfast, the Web empowers all individuals to publish their own content.

But where does that leave the audience? There is little doubt that the Web is full of wonders undreamt of, but the issue is how to find the rare gems of interest amongst the deluge of general content.

We can, of course, turn to search engines to help us in our quest for content, but this option is becoming increasingly dissatisfying for many Web surfers. As the amount of content grows, simply typing in a few keywords and hoping that something relevant will appear in the first few dozen results is not much of a way to conduct your business.

Even with increasingly human-like search engines such as Ask Jeeves (www.ask.com), which uses "natural language" to ask for information, purely digital filters still leave a lot to be desired. They can pour results in front of your eyes, but these lists of potential directions to take your Web safari always lack any weight given to the quality of that information. After all, a computer can't tell whether a story is well written or whether a travel site includes accurate information. That takes the human touch.

Increasingly, the Web's greatest asset in rating the content that is being provided are the audiences viewing it. Just as the creators have been empowered to provide their content, now audiences are empowered to critique the subject matter.

One of the best examples of how audiences are allowed directly to express their opinions on the Web is at Amazon. The "worlds largest bookseller" allows its visitors to write online reviews of the books it sells. Thus, rather than turning to the filter of professional critics and reviewers, this authority is given to anyone who cares to comment. A book's sales can go up or down not based on a single authoritative reviewer's say so, but based on a larger consensus of the people who have read the book.

Etour.com takes this concept out into the Web itself. You sign up at their site, and in your form you tell Etour.com about your interests in a checklist of hundreds of possible topics. Then the tour begins by randomly taking you to sites that fit your profile. At the bottom of the window, there is the Etour.com frame that allows you to rate that site - thumbs up or thumbs down. The results are then displayed in a percentage of people who liked or disliked that site. While Etour.com shows some promise, it will sink or swim based on the robustness of its filter for finding sites of interest to you and on promoting the sites that its viewers like.

While ThirdVoice (www.thirdvoice.com) does not help you to find new websites, it does allow visitors to a site to leave virtual "notes" on any page. It does this through its own software, which can be used with Internet Explorer on Windows - freedom of speech is restricted to that browser and platform - to set up messages that can be read publicly, just by your friends, or by you. You can even comment on particular passages in a text. Yet there is still one problem with the free-for-all approach to filtering content on the Web: just because someone comments on something does not mean that they know what they are talking about. I don't remember who said it, but I have always agreed with the statement that "no one is entitled to an opinion, but everyone is entitled to a well informed opinion".

People who are experts in their fields can be invaluable in helping you to find information on that topic, and that's what About.com is all about. It is "a network comprising hundreds of dedicated, topic-specific human experts", who want to "bring humanity to the Internet". These "guides", as the experts are called, review new sites, host chat sessions and answer your questions. So, somewhatironically, we are returning to the authorities to help us effectively to filter information on the Web.

The Web is growing in content, and, it is hoped, maturing in its functionality, including how that content is filtered for audiences. Do you know of any clever ways content is being "filtered"? Drop me a line and let me know about them.

Jason Cranford Teague is the author of `DHTML For the World Wide Web'.

If you have questions, you can find an archive of his column at Webbed Environments (www. webbedenvironemtns.com) or email him at jason@webbedenvironemts.com