Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Searching, a fresh perspective

This post is completely off topic but I hope some find it interesting.

I was recently clued into a new(ish) search engine via Twitter (thanks @starfocus) and wanted to share some thoughts about the refreshing approach being taken when it comes to finding things on the Interwebs.

Let me clarify here, I’m not calling this site a ‘Google Killers’, far from it. Google could do something like these or they could just buy them. What’s exciting, I think is that this search engine brings some very innovative and arguably long overdue approaches to the table. We take searching for granted because Google for the most part has defined or at least re-defined how we think about searching for things on the web. I’m not so sure a little creative competition won’t do everyone some good.

The purpose of a search engine is to find what we are looking for on the web, right? Well Google and all the other search engines do that pretty well already so where can things be improved? I think there are really three areas; presentation, organization and sharing.
So let’s have a look at

Presentation: Searchme: offers a strangely familiar (iTunes or Vista Aero anyone? ) display of your search results. You can view a thumbnail preview of each website before you click on it. There is a scroll bar at the bottom to advance further into the results and for those of us that still want (or need) our search results to be in text, you can open up a text results window. The feature that I think stands out here is the autoplay option when searching for videos. You can get a quick thumbnail preview of any video results you search yields.

Organization: Enter ‘stacks’! This is my favorite feature of searchme:. If you are anything like me you are hitting lots of pages when researching something on the web. You probably have 15 tabs open in FireFox and it doesn’t take long before you are disorganized. Stacks let you literally ‘toss’ or drag and drop various pages into a working or saved ‘stack’. You can then save that stack for later or delete it when you have finished with it. This is a great feature; sorry bookmarking just doesn’t cut it anymore. Oh, and if you close your browser, the stacks stay.

Sharing: Web 2.0 is this year’s buzzword so I guess we can only expect search engines to jump on that bandwagon too. The sharing tools in searchme: are up to par with what you’d expect these days. You can take a saved ‘stack’ and share it using traditional email or use a variety of social bookmarking services and throw it out on Digg or Facebook, you know the drill. It’s nice to have this feature baked into the search though so you don't need a 3rd party solution.

All and all I’m pretty impressed. I’m not really sure about their business model yet and there isn’t much information in about us. There isn't really any advertising either. I still plan to use Google though: D

That’s it for this one! Send your comments!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

First Look: NetCommunity v5.5

We upgraded our test environment to v5.5 the other day. It’s still early and I haven’t had a chance to jump into all the new features in any depth but I wanted to highlight some of the new features that I have had a chance to review. These aren’t in any particular order and I have left a few of the major features out, like Social Networking. I'm hoping to put out two more blog posts, one covering Social Networking specfically and another outlining the significant changes to the API.

One thing of note for those of you that have custom parts is that v5.5 uses a new version of the AJAXControlToolkit and BBNCExtensions in NetCommunity. Chances are that your existing custom parts probably use those DLLs so you’ll need to make sure you update your references, rebuild and redeploy your custom parts so they use the new DLLs when you upgrade.

So what will I touch on in this first look?
• Revamped administration pages

• Friendly URLS
• reCaptcha
• Site Tracking Code

Administration Pages

The revamp of the administration page includes a new cleaner look as well as some pretty nice flow changes. You can now edit the stylesheets for a page or template and easily apply those changes right to the page. In previous versions you need to actually save and close before refreshing to view the changes made. They also moved the custom tags to the top which is the most logical place for it I think. Another notable change is FireFox support for the admin pages. I’m an avid FireFox user and only switch over to IE when necessary so this is a nice change for me. Lastly, the “remember me” functionality seems to be working properly now. I logged in last night and choose “remember me” and this morning I was still logged in. That’s a nice feature for administrators that are using the system on a regular basis.

Friendly URLs
A friendly url is a web address that is simplified like that redirects to any other url specified. In v5.5 native support for friendly or vanity urls has been added. This is great news for us because we have a custom solution we used to accomplish this. It's always good when a custom part can be retired because it's supported in the core product. One less application I need to support.

For those that are unfamiliar with reCaptcha you can learn more here. A Captcha is a application that helps to ensure that individual filling out a form is in fact a real person and not a scripted bot. That is accomplished by forcing the user to decipher a series of characters and enter them into a text box before the form can be submitted. In v5.5 this feature is supported for most of the sensitive forms within NetCommunity. It can be turned off and on by each client so you aren't forced to enable it if you don't want to. If you choose to you'll need to setup an account and enter in two keys provided by reCaptcha into the NetCommunity admin.

Site Tracking Code
Since we started using NetCommunity we have used Google Analytics for stats tracking. This was typically accomplished by putting the tracking code some place on the layout pages your site used. This was a bit cumbersome if you had multiple layouts and if you created a new layout and forgot to add the code you were no longer getting accurate site traffic data. v5.5 adds native support for any site tracking code. In the admin you can simply enter in the code and it's automatically applied to all the pages on your site.

So that's it for this one. As I said before I'm hoping to put out another post shortly covering the Social Networking piece added in v5.5 followed by one covering the API changes.

As always if you have any questions please feel free to contact me on twitter

Friday, August 1, 2008

RELEASE: Blackbaud NetCommunity v5.5

Well Blackbaud has released NetCommunity 5.5 late yesterday. It's not on the download page yet but I'm sure that's coming today.

Steve's latest post has a features overview and a link to the press release.

Once I have a chance to download and test I'll be writing a brief review.