An Able Grape at the Helm of Twitter Search

While I am an avid Twitter user (and apparently a tradeable commodity in a “Fantasy Twitter” game that some friends are playing), regular readers know that I’ve offered mixed reviews of Twitter Search.

I’ve link-baited Summize founder and Twitter Chief Scientist Abdur Chowdhury here once or twice, but I understand that he’s no longer running Twitter Search. They’ve got a new guy, Doug Cook, as Director of Search.

This is great news, because Doug is someone who’s thought a lot about search and user experience. He was one of the early web search guys at Inktomi and also spent some time at Yahoo!, but what impresses me most is a project he’s pursued as a labor of love: Able Grape.

From their about page:

We’re a wine search engine — not for comparison shopping, but for learning and research. We aim to be the world’s most comprehensive, up-to-date, and authoritative source for online wine information.

Great, another vertical search engine, just what the world needs (unfortunately WordPress 2.8.4 doesn’t support sarcastic font). But seriously, Able Grape is worth a look, even if, like me, you are not a wine nerd. So wash your glasses and let’s have a quick tasting.

First off, Able Grape is not searching a proprietary document collection. Rather, it’s based on a focused crawl of “more than 38,000 sites and some 18 million pages.” In other words, Able Grape is in no position to ask anyone to add meta-data. Even at the site level, I doubt Doug had the time to customize the handling of content for each of 38,000 sites. In other words, there’s enough scale here to make the problem interesting.

Now let’s look at some examples of the site in action. I’m a fan of Spanish wines, so I’ll start with one of their example queries, tempranillo. The first page of results looks relevant to the topic, but so far that doesn’t distinguish them from Google, Yahoo, or Bing. What surprises me is that the “Filter by Region” offers regions outside of Spain–like California and even New York! Yes, I might have learned some of that from Wikipedia–though it would not even have occurred to me to ask about non-Spanish Tempranillo. That’s exploratory search and serendipitous discovery for you!

Let’s try a different example, this time not from their list. I like Malbec wines (which I associated with my maternal link to Argentina), but the only local wine region for me is the North Fork of Long Island. So here’s a search for north fork malbec, filtered to Long Island. It certainly gives me ideas of which wineries to check out on my next trip there. Though, to be fair to the competition, G/Y/B all handle this query pretty well–though none of them offer refinement by region to disambiguate “north fork”.

Able Grape has lots of cool features, ranging from how they handle multilingual content to clever use of constrained “wildcard” terms like anyvariety to match any wine variety (aka varietal). I suspect that there is much to learn from its design that applies to a broad variety (sorry!) of search applications.

I’m a wine dilletante, so it’s hard for me to spend too much time on this site without any deep-seated information needs to fulfill. But I’m a card-carrying member of searchaholics anonymous (well, maybe not so anonymous), and I’m impressed by what Doug’s done with this vertical.

Which brings us back to Twitter Search. Director of Search for Twitter is a high-profile, high-pressure job, even without Facebook nipping at Twitter’s heels. I’m sure Able Grape will ferment for a while as Doug devotes his creative energies to improving Twitter Search. I certainly hope he brings the same focus and sensitivity to his new endeavor and makes Twitter Search a grand cru of search engines.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

5 replies on “An Able Grape at the Helm of Twitter Search”

Mr. Tunkelang I would like to ask a related question on this topic. Let say I know almost nothing about wines/digital cameras/cars and a search site offers me “options” to drill down. However, I cant use those effectively and eventually it comes down to availability and price for me. My questions are what are your thoughts on these kinds of situations and is there a scientific explanation/theory on this case?

This may be why Google does not endorse faceted search except for experimental projects.


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