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A search engine that ranks people’s influence

Sruthi Krishnan

If others are paying you attention, you are earning money


Chennai: Once, Internet was a collection of documents. Then came search that helped to find a document based on a key word. Then came smarter search that ranked documents based on the strength of citations to get more relevant results.

Then something happened; people took over. Welcome to search in the social web — where the Internet is more a stream of conversation between people, rather than a set of documents.

This is the “new way of looking at the Internet” according to Topsy (http://topsy.com), a search engine that was launched on May 26. It is a product of Topsy Labs.

“The Topsy treats people differently from the webpage they are talking about,” said Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, the Invisible Hand and VP Research at Topsy Labs. He is also the founder of the Collaborative Creative Group at the University of Maastricht, the Netherlands and he started “First Monday,” a peer-reviewed journal devoted to the Internet. Speaking to The Hindu in an interview, Mr. Ghosh, who is also one of the co-founders of the Topsy Labs, explained why the search engine’s view of the Internet was different.

How the idea was born

The idea for the Topsy was born while noticing “this big shift in the web,” said Mr. Ghosh. There were a lot of communities creating content on the Internet and most of these communities were not indexed by any search engine. “They may index a page, but it was not being indexed as set by an author.” And that information provided a higher quality signal on how relevant a document was, he added.

In search, when documents are ranked to present the most relevant results, mostly we end up looking at only the top results. Hence, better search implies a better set of top results. “This was traditionally done by looking at links,” as in how other documents were looking at this document. The Topsy would also look at who are the people linking to that document, he added.

The Topsy factors in the people by ranking their influence. This was done by finding “how much they talk to each other and how much attention they pay to each other.”

It computed people’s influence by treating it like wealth, said Mr. Ghosh. “If you pay others a lot of attention, you are spending money. If others are paying you attention, you are earning it.” If a lot of people are paying attention to you, and citing what you say, it builds your wealth. The main thing was to capture how much attention was being paid. So, the Topsy helps provide results for what people are talking about right now, sorted by the influence of the people talking.

Currently, the Topsy has indexed the community in Twitter ( www.twitter.com), a real-time short messaging service.

Shift predicted

In the near term, traditional search engines and engines such as Topsy would complement each other, said Mr. Ghosh.

“We will see people using the Topsy for a class of queries.” In the long term, he sees a shift. “If you compare the top sites on Alexa [ www.alexa.com], they are socially created,” he said, which underscored the importance of paying attention to the people creating them.

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