The online search party: A way to share the load

The New York Times reports that new tools being developed by Microsoft and other companies now enable people at different computers to search as a team, dividing responsibilities and pooling results and recommendations in a shared web space on the browser display as they plan a family vacation, for instance, or research a medical problem. Meredith Ringel Morris, a computer scientist at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Wash., has created one of these collaborative tools, SearchTogether, now available in a test version as a free download at The program is designed to work within the Internet Explorer 7 browser. "Web search is usually considered a solitary activity," Morris said. "But many tasks can benefit from joint searching." She notes that people have always collaborated informally in searches, watching over a friend’s shoulder and suggesting alternative search words, for instance, or dividing tasks and then eMailing the most promising web sites to one another, along with comments. "But these joint search behaviors aren’t directly supported by standard tools," she said. SearchTogether, by contrast, actively supports a group search, said Michael Twidale, an associate professor at the graduate school of library and information science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who studies people’s strategies for conducting research jointly.
"SearchTogether addresses a real need," he said. "People searching for information often want to interact with other people. But most of our information retrieval systems fail to recognize this…"

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