The human approach to finding information on the internet

If hunting for information on search engines has left you a little frustrated then perhaps you should make use of one of the newest search techniques on the web – the human being.

Five undergraduate students from the University of Rhode Island have started a project called HumanSearch which accepts, enquires and returns answers in everyday English.

Unlike search engines that you may have become accustomed to, HumanSearch doesn’t ask you to enter queries using any syntax other than what you learnt at school.

Questions such as “What is the population of Portugal?” or “When does it rain in Brazil?” are answered by students who collect the answers on the internet and in the school library and then provide an easily understandable response by e-mail.

HumanSearch could be seen as a human interface to search engines. Let’s face it, search engines aren’t always easy to use. Without going into any advanced or customised searches, I tried the first question above on some of the more popular search engines.

AltaVista returned 200 000 documents, HotBot didn’t find anything, Lycos found “Whatcom County Population” amongst 52566 other documents and Excite found 678 311 documents.

Both AltaVista and Excite returned a document containing the Portuguese population in 1989 as their number one document. So as a first attempt, I didn’t get much gratification from the search engines.

If I were to dig a little deeper then I am confident that I could find the answer. But why dig around if someone else will do it for you? And that is exactly what HumanSearch will do for you at no cost to yourself.

The downside to HumanSearch is that they can take up to 48 hours to return an answer. This requires you to think your questions ahead of time. It may not satisfy the information junkies who require instant results but is likely to become invaluable to people doing research projects.

HumanSearch was established when its founders experienced first hand the problems associated with search engines. Information overload is one of the most common challenges. If your search is not specific enough then it is common to have hundreds of thousands of documents returned to you. To make your search more specific requires learning syntax that is often based on computer logic. This is acceptable to computer geeks but not to the man in the street.

Another company offering a similar service is answers.com, who run their search engine as a commercial venture. Users get charged depending on the complexity of their questions. Prices range from US$1.79 for an easy question to US$11.99 for a hard question. If your question falls out of the scope of their categories then answers.com will provide a quote before starting the search.

HumanSearch and answers.com add a new category to the existing two types of search engines. AltaVista, Excite, HotBot and Yahoo make use of digital robots that crawl around the world wide web collecting information about all of the pages that they find.

Yahoo, on the other hand provides a structured directory of information organised into categories and sub-categories. It is updated by humans but you still need to use computer syntax to answer your queries.

Predictions are widespread that technology and more specifically the internet will cause massive job losses as people are replaced with computers. Search engines could be a good example of technology making a task more efficient but requiring humans (performing a different, more advanced task) to make them accurate.

Just as scribes were made redundant and new opportunities for authors opened up in 1450 when Johann Guttenburg invented the printing press, so too might search engines make librarians redundant but open up tremendous opportunities for information specialists who are able to separate the knowledge from the data.

Banking on the internet

With the Internet knocking on their doors, traditional banks are being pressurised to adapt to new technology or stand aside and watch as more innovative players enter the highly lucrative banking game. Security First Network Bank (SFNB) is one a new breed of banks who avoid face to face contact with their customers by transacting over the Internet. Fully approved, insured and with an asset value of US$ 41 million, SFNB is likely to be a tough act to follow for banks still expecting their customers to walk through the door.

Electronic transfers have transformed banks from being a safe place to keep your money, to one of the most information intense industries that we deal with in our daily lives. SFNB uses the Internet to move banking from branches to the world wide web. Clients can use their browsers to login securely to the banks’ computers to pay accounts, transfer money, get up to the minute statements and even view digital images of cheques that have cleared. Deposits, always an online banking dilemma are handled by direct deposits or wire transfers from any other account. 

While more than 200 banks are now offering an online service, SFNB was the first truly branchless bank. Strangely enough their next addition will not be another web server but rather a physical branch. Following the success of their online bank they are now opening city offices. The first is opening on January 30th is in Atlanta, Georgia. “We see our City Offices as a hybrid banking solution that blends the best aspects of a physical presence with all of the convenience and power of Internet banking,” said James S. Chip” Mahan, III, SFNB chief executive officer. “We are bringing the technology to our customers in yet another way, a natural step in the further development and delivery of online banking.” The physical SFNB branches are intended to compliment the online service. Although it is easy to open an account online, the branches will offer that human touch for those customers who aren’t yet familiar with the online world. Staff will assist customers by showing them how to use the online banking system.

SFNB have placed major emphasis on security to get approval from the office for thrift supervision (OTS) which is the banking regulatory body in the United States. Their security emphasis also helps to put customers minds at rest when transacting over the internet. After their first year of trading the bank concludes that the internet provides an even safer environment for banking than the real world. The internet community is to a certain extent self policing with customers suggesting better ways of operating to avoid fraud.

SFNB offers an extremely interactive service which allows customers most of the functionality of Intuits Quicken package or Microsoft Money. The difference being you don’t need to go out and spend money on software. All you need is a web browser and a connection to the internet. 

STOP PRESS : The ABSA group recently announced that their online banking service was available and signed up more than 100 users in the following week. Not being an ABSA customer myself I asked a computer geek friend of mine, an ABSA client himself, what he thought of the service. “Signing up was extremely easy,” he said, “but there is no service. I seem to be have been added to a mailing list and they promised to keep me informed. I couldn’t even do basic things like transfer money.” It seems that we may have to wait before we can say that South Africa has a working online bank.

Internet advertising – on and off the web

If 1995 was the year of the internet then 1996 must surely be the year of the world wide web. The web, barely 2 years old and growing exponentially, is driven by companies striving to discover models to make it financially viable.

Home shopping – an area predicted to be the commercial powerhouse of the internet – has returned paltry profits for companies, while online advertising has been catapulted onto centre stage as an internet commercial success story.

Online advertising, just like print and television advertising, must produce a return on investment or the advertiser is wasting he or her time and money. The internet offers many ways to put the message across, with advantages over traditional or off-line advertising.

Earlier this year three of the largest search engines on the world wide web went public on the NASDAQ stock exchange. While their stock prices didn’t maintain their initial “high flyer” status, the companies, Yahoo, Excite and Lycos, all have their revenues based on advertising. With over two million people visiting Yahoo in a single day, even internet sceptics have to recognise that there aren’t many newspapers or television channels around with such large audiences.

Netscape, probably the most famous of the internet start-ups, charges companies in excess of $20 000 per month for a banner advert on its web site. Banner adverts are a graphical “strip” containing advertising that appears across the top of the screen when users are trying to find information. Netscape guarantees that the advert will receive one million impressions or views.

Advertisers, initially excited by the idea that millions of people would see their advert, have now started placing more demands on the web publishers. Enter the definition of “click”, which is when a person viewing one those banners actually clicks on it to find out more information.

It is now common practice that web publishers provide a choice to their advertisers of a cost per impression or a cost per click. While there are arguments for and against each method, the advertiser is the winner, being able to choose a rate best suited to each particular advert.

The world wide web is not the only place where advertisers are marketing their wares on the internet. Pointcast, a company based in California, beams news and information to users’ desktops using the internet and their own software program.

Features include a Reuters newsfeed, online editions of major newspapers, stock quotes, weather and pollen counts. While users are receiving all this news and information, a block taking up about 20% of the screen continuously shows adverts.

Not being limited by the constraints of the world wide web, Pointcast adverts show clever animations without the delay usually associated with web graphics. The service also allows adverts to be tailored specifically to users.

If you are looking at sports scores then you may see an advert for Nike as opposed to an advert for a drug company when you are getting the latest pollen counts. This trend has also crept into the search engines. When searching for a key word you are likely to receive advertising associated with that word wherever possible.

Another (non-web based) entrant into internet advertising is Juno. Launched in March 1996, Juno offers a free e-mail service to anyone who needs to use the internet for communication without having the need for access to the world wide web. If the service is free then how do they make their money? Advertising, of course.

In order to qualify for free e-mail, users need to supply detailed information about themselves so that Juno can build up a profile for their advertisers. In return for free e-mail, users are obliged to receive a small postage-sized advert with every e-mail message they receive.

Junosays it aims to make the advertising more palatable than that received in other media. Unlike television, Juno will be able to target advertising at specific income groups, ages, sexes and interest groups, preventing situations where business executives have to see washing powder advertisements.

Internet advertising, still in its infancy, is likely to take major strides as people look for innovative ways of utilising the technology to target specific people.

The winners will not only be the advertisers getting their message across and the web site publishers who are able to charge for ad space, but also the consumer who should start to see an increase in advertisements that interest them rather than being bombarded with a deluge of unfocused adverts.