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© 2000

Context Providers Add Texture to Your Surf
By Andrew Goodman, Oct. 6, 2000

In this wired age, there is always a need to make order out of the overabundance of valued information. As a result, the demand for information infrastructure services as provided by companies like Infospace and Marketguide, who take disparate sources of information and shape them into manageable formats on behalf of major clients like AOL, is not likely to abate.

Two fledgling companies are pursuing two very different paths in a quest to make Internet content more intelligible and useful. But their impact - both would allow the user to drill down and enrich their research effort with ease - is similar. They are both working to become "context providers."

SiteSherpa - The Insider's View of the Web

New York-based SiteSherpa is working on a "web travel companion" which aims to provide useful background information on the sites you visit. There is a precedent in this genre: browser companions such as Alexa which tell you a little bit about the sites you're visiting.

Let's start with an explanation of Alexa. Alexa is a free download that works with your browser (it seems to work best with Internet Explorer). Operating in a toolbar or frame attached to the browser, it gives you an indication of how popular a site is (overall rank of web site, based on the number of Alexa visits, which is a pretty good approximation). It tells you about related sites, and offers contact information if it's available. Reader reviews and ratings are also a part of the Alexa formula. However, Alexa has languished somewhat under its new parent, Amazon.

SiteSherpa, like Alexa, takes advantage of the Explorer Bar - a frame which opens in Internet Explorer either horizontally or vertically to provide "companion applications."

SiteSherpa was started by journalists who believed that Internet users are too often visiting sites without any background context about the reliability of the information. Their concept is to provide site reviews by Insiders - experts in a given field - to allow users to surf with this needed background info at hand.

The SiteSherpa web site also offers a kind of trend watch as a media presence in its own right. It contains reviews and discussions about what's interesting out there on the web. It's kind of a pro's-eye-view of the business of content.

Project Napa - The Science of People-Watching

The youthful Silicon Valley veterans behind Project Napa are working on what might be termed a "content infrastructure technology" related to biography. Indeed, it may well be that the addictive and educative A&E program, Biography, was a partial inspiration for this. At the least, the popularity of Biography is an indicator that, for better or worse, today we are more focused than ever on celebrity. Major celebrities have become an industry; minor celebrities can live for years almost entirely off their fame or infamy. Just ask John Wayne Bobbitt or Tanya Harding.

So how does it work? Something along the lines of how the embedded stock symbols in an online news article often lead to deeper information related to the company in question. In other words, it's a matter of taking disparate forms of biographical information and standardizing them, so that a dossier can be built in a consistent way. Terence Pua, CEO of Project Napa (and founder of, begins with this proposition and then begins to explore its possibilities, and they become more compelling as you contemplate them.

For example, you might ask yourself, why are the organizing principles of our web searches set up in the way they are? Although it's certainly cool that you can perform image searches on Lycos or AltaVista, searching by keyword offers a very imperfect way of finding a collection of the best images of, say, Tiger Woods winning tournaments. Although XML may soon improve the precision of search, we're not there yet, and as far as I can understand it, much of the Internet's legacy content will never have the right tags attached. If you were able to pull up a standardized dossier on Woods, on the other hand, it would eventually offer the full range of photos because information provider partners, Woods' staff, and Woods' fans would work to add them systematically to the database. It sounds like Project Napa is going to need a lot of data storage space.

Here's another potential application. Let's say you want to quickly check on the biographical background of someone who works for a company you're doing business with. The Project Napa concept would provide a platform for any user - including the person in question - to add data to a bio, including the person themselves. Over time, most anyone in business would have an easily accessible dossier. The bio would then be much more accessible in a standard format - you wouldn't be stuck trying to look the person up on Google. Bios could be very extensive, linked to dozens of attributes including more reliable forms of information like date of birth, to rumor, opinions, and gossip.

Another major application of this might be to allow readers of online articles to have quick access to deeper information about the author. So often, authors and reporters are a "cipher" - we know little about the background they bring to their task. Added context will allow readers to better judge the credibility of content. It would also make it easier for readers to find other materials by the same author.

There are some good reasons for not wanting this to transpire, of course. Is standardized information always going to paint the picture you want people to see of yourself? Is standardized information - built through the efforts of various people with various motivations - the same as accurate information? Isn't it possible to know too much about someone? What about those notoriously private people who would rather the press not even know the names of their children? Clearly, there are downsides to this kind of project. But as with other information revolutions that we've witnessed in the past decade, there's approximately zero chance that it can be stopped.

A sneak peek Project Napa site will be launched to a limited audience in the next few weeks. One thing's for sure: Pua will never be telling a tale whenever he tells someone at a cocktail party that he's a "people person."

More Texture, Less Searching

These are two exciting products which, in essence, provide context to web surfers. They hold considerable promise to add texture to what is now a sometimes flat online experience.

The provision of background context for surfing is going to encounter some barriers to adoption. The less cumbersome the services are to use, the better.

Other services in this genre have made bold choices which may prevent widespread adoption. Third Voice, for example, was a cool and elegant product that allowed users to stick comments on web sites that other Third Voice users can see. They’re like little sticky notes and showed up as red dots or highlighted items on the page. A look at the web site indicates that they’ve been revamping the service. Highlighted items are now orange underlines. And the whole nature of the activity seems to have been changed, from a peanut-gallery style commentary to a (potential) smorgasbord of info. In their words: "Ordinary words are transformed into links to valuable and interesting information on sports, music, entertainment . . . and more!"

As it stands, Third Voice may still be too cumbersome to enjoy widespread adoption. Plus, they might be biting off more than they can chew, offering biography along with numerous other background links for any word, as opposed to Project Napa which focuses only on dossier-building about people.

Final question: if a celeb like Christina Aguilera is washed up by the age of twenty-two, will Project Napa and Third Voice do the honorable thing and disappear them from the database?


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