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Google Star Search

Note to reader
Always read the fine print.
Note to self
Endeavor to make your deceitfulness more obvious in future.

I was visiting a buddy of mine in the Valley this week, catching up over coffee when the conversation —as it inevitably does— turned to work. Generally speaking he’s pretty tight-lipped about what goes on at Mountain View, but when I asked him what he was working on these days his eyes lit up and the sides of his mouth curled into a tight grin.

You wanna see?

He pulled his laptop out of its cute little protective slip and booted up, opening Firefox to the default home page and grinning all the while. I just kind of stared at it, looking for something novel; something worth smiling so much over. Nothing. Sam looked like he was going to burst if I didn’t notice whatever the hell it was that he was trying to show me, but I was drawing blanks. Preempting my WTF, he interjected…

The bookmarks button!

I looked up at the toolbar and saw, well, nothing astonishing. The normal bookmark icon —a book with a bookmark in it, surprise— was absent. It had been replaced by a star, not unlike the star icon Internet Explorer uses for Favorites. I still wasn’t getting it.

So you changed the icon to look more like Explorer’s. Nice to see they’re paying you so well to hack on Firefox like this.

No, dummy. Not like IE. Like Picasa. Like Gmail.

Branding issues aside, I was starting to think the barista hadn’t flushed the cleaner out of the machine properly this morning. Sam was sounding less and less like a computer science PhD and more like that guy I saw rooting around in the dumpster last night.

This isn’t just the bookmark manager that’s built into the Firefox software, it’s the front end to a web service I’ve been working on. We’ve been calling it Star Search, but it probably won’t go public with that name.

And at that he began outlining exactly what Star Search does, and why he is so excited about it.

Essentially, Star Search is a little man that sits on your shoulder and logs every page you visit. Sounds kinda nasty at first, bordering on spyware, but I’m assured it’s completely above board and totally secure. Instead of logging the pages locally, it pings Google’s servers with the URL and your Google ID —using only the slightest of bandwidth and system resources— and lets the server take care of the rest. When you come across a page you want to bookmark (or star, as Sam is adamant I call it) you hit the star button on the toolbar. It pulses for a second (cute, but not exactly Firefoxy) and you go on your merry way. Basically, this Firefox extension sits around looking unintrusive all day while it tracks your every move on the Internet.

But what does Google do with all this information? Well that’s the fun part. Have you ever recalled seeing something online but can’t remember where? You search and you search and you search to the best of your ability but you come out empty-handed because that particular page isn’t ‘important’ enough to warrant a decent PageRank… it’s too obscure to be found in the first hundred results of your search, so you give up and try to forget about it. Well, Google Star Search solves that problem: when you visit Google you can now choose between a full-Web search and a search limited to the pages in your history; a full-content, ranked query of everything you’ve ever looked at in your browser. Not only that, but pages that you flag (or star, rather) are automatically given higher ranking in the results. You get a clever history and bookmark search, and Google gets a better idea of what real human beings think is useful by analyzing their trajectories through the Web and their favorite (starred) sites.

I was impressed. Sure, the OmniWeb browser had full-content bookmark and history search, but it always felt kinda clunky… and there was no way you could keep your history around forever like Star Search does, your hard disk would choke. The Google solution isn’t just lighter and indisputably more useful, you can also use it on any machine you’d logged into with your Google ID. You can take your history and starred pages anywhere!

That’s not all, he says.

When you log into Star Search you can also view and manage your starred pages explicitly like you would in a traditional bookmark manager. And there’s an option, when you star something, to mark only that specific page or to generalize it to the whole site.

So like Rollyo or Yahoo My Web 2.0? You’re setting up a custom Google Search?

No, not like Rollyo. Rollyo is third-party and it’s hacked onto the Yahoo API. And you can’t search more than 25 sites in your roll! And Yahoo is child’s play compared to this. We’re going to kick ass with this.

I had to agree with him… the demo he gave was pretty compelling, and it was near-seamless. It’s the “search, don’t sort” culture that gave birth to Gmail, and it looked oh-so-effortless I wondered why anyone would ever want to file their bookmarks manually again.

Something that chaffed me at this point was, and Star Search’s similarity (or rather dissimilarity) to it. Obviously being a web-based bookmarking service is the biggest part of it, but if there are two things any Web 2.0 service needs right now —besides AJAX and an API— it’s free-form tagging and a social element, and while Google Star Search had all the other checkmarks I’d expect from such a service it seemed to lack those crucial two.

Way ahead of you. The management interface I told you about before is completely tagged. We shunned the file/folder metaphor and stuck with the labeling system we used in Gmail.

And with social networking and sharing and whatnot?

It’s all available through the API, so people with API keys could set up their own ‘search my favorite corners of the web’ kind of thing, but right now we don’t have any collaborative or social features in the works. There may be something in the future, maybe through Blogger or Orkut, but that isn’t something for the 1.0

You mean beta.

[laughs] Yeah, the first beta.

Which will be when?

Soon. Very soon.

Persistent web-based bookmarking and history with full search, tagging, and an Internet all of your very own. Throw in some very swanky browser integration, and a near future where third-party developers can integrate URL logging into their own apps (imagine NetNewsWire contributing to your star history too) and you’ve got Star Search in a nutshell. Well, that’s what I heard.*