Google Notebook and the Process of Search

May 17, 2006

Google Notebook has launched and if it delivers what it promises

an online “notebook” where you can organize all your research, add personal notes to it, and share it with others. Google Notebook surfs along quietly with you as you browse, letting you clip and annotate whatever text, images, and links that help answer your question, all without ever leaving the webpage you’re on.

it (or other similarly minded services) may have a significant impact on how we search and, by extension, on how we use the internet.
Folksonomies and knowledge search products like Yahoo! Answers (now integrated with organic search results) or the new Google Co-op (which “gives a richer vocabulary to talk about things than just links“) are changing already the search habits of many of us, but we are still in the era of keywords & bookmarks search:

  1. search the web by keywords or tags
  2. browse thru the search results
  3. bookmark what we like for later retrieval
  1. search the bookmarks

and what is left of this somtime tremendous process are just some individual bookmarks (organized in a folder tree, with tags and comments, if we are diligent).
But nothing is left of the process: the sequence of URIs we landed in, the particular piece of content on those pages that made us decide to bookmark,  what we thought or realized by consuming those contents, the temporal and semantic relationships among the pages we visited during our search, what we learned about the subject we were (re)searching, and all the other things that could participate in the process of search.
Without the memory of the search process, bookmarks, tags, and even our own comments (lets call the bunch meta-bookmarks for short) will lose their common ground, the aboutness to the answers we found in them, and in the end their recall power. In other words, with time, as our biological memory of the search process fades away, the precious meta-bookmarks will lose the advantage they had over a plain web/blog search.
Who systematically peruse bookmarks? Who doesn’t remake the same search over and over again?
The way take note (keywords & bookmarks) of the discoveries we make while exploring the web or the blogosphere is not reliable. Think of what Recall is to the retrieval of (biological) memory: 

Recall involves digging into the memory and bringing back information on a stimulus/response basis. Recall often needs prompting with cues to help us retrieve what we are looking for. It is not a reliable form of memory and many of us experience the feeling that we know the answer but simply can’t dig the information out. This is the technique we use to remember people’s names, hence we often forget them.

I often have the same feeling about things I had found on the net: I know I found it (and maybe even bookmarked it), but simply cannot remember where it is or how I got there.

Google Notebook has its flaws, already noted elsewhere, but it seems to me that some preliminary steps in a promising direction are been taken:

  • clippings (notes about text, image or link) to indicate the relevant parts of contents: why am I reading/liking/bookmarking this
  • sections to organize notes
  • draggable notes across sections and notebooks

I can’t see any time-relative information e.g. when the notebook was created/edited attached or attachable to notebooks, but that would be a useful thing to add to the service.

If we consider a Notebook as our memory of a (complex) search, then it should be clear how this approach could innovate the way we search and recall information and, by extension, the way we use the internet.

Final note: many blogs (mine included) are little more than abridged collections of others’ original posts and Google Notebook could serve such a purpose rather neatly. The Notosphere is born and it may contribute to reduce the noise in the blogosphere.

Google Notebook overview

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