Project Emporia

I heartily recommend you open Project Emporia while reading this post (the link will open in a new window if you click it...)

What is Project Emporia?

Microsoft's Project Emporia is almost exactly a year old at the time of writing (June 2011) but over the spring bank holiday weekend it suddenly popped up in the world's press as a 'new' competitor to Google.

That's absurd because (a) it's not new, as I just mentioned and (b) it's not a search engine in the conventional sense. What it is, is a way of filtering the links your Twitter peer group share, so that you can pick out the themes that are most relevant to your interests.

It's much more powerful than just that, though - so powerful, in fact, that I stared open-mouthed at its genius, simplicity and beauty for (genuinely) about 10 minutes the first time I logged on.


To get started, simply load the Project Emporia website. That alone will bring up a grid of top stories from a range of different traditional news 'channels' - by which I mean subject areas, rather than news outlets. Click on a headline or a channel name to list the latest stories in that particular area.

And that's it for the basic homepage - until you log in and connect Emporia to your Twitter account, at which point all hell breaks loose, but so subtly that you might not even notice it.

What Happens Next?


By logging in, you give Project Emporia the ability to tailor what you see to suit your personal tastes. Articles each have a five-icon toolbar - plus, save, mail, minus and what I call the 'stop button' because it has a square on it, like a stop button does.

These do the following:
  • plus: Makes Emporia prioritise similar articles in future

  • save: Adds the article to your saved items

  • mail: Shares the article by email or on Twitter

  • minus: Makes Emporia less likely to show similar items

  • stop: Marks the article as read without affecting future articles

The plus and minus buttons are key to what Project Emporia is about - even on the channels homepage, you have the power to determine what will show up in future, based on the specific topics you are most interested in.

If you like a particular band, for instance, like enough articles about them and they should begin to dominate your headlines. Or a football team. Or an actor.

You also get new tabs at the top of the screen:

Custom Channels

This is a keyword-driven search of items linked to by people all over Twitter. Emporia can tell you if your friends have shared an item, or even if a friend of a friend has done. Depending on how big your follow list is - and how popular the people on it are in turn - that could be a fairly sizeable cohort of tweeters.

Define a new custom channel and it will stay there the next time you log in, meaning, again, you can use the plus and minus buttons to tailor what types of content show up there.

Social Channels

The third icon takes you to Emporia's social channels. These can link to your Twitter account and your Facebook account, if that's where you're more active.

Channels show you what your friends and friends-of-friends have been sharing. The idea is not only to find content that you're interested in, but potentially to find people who share interesting content. It's an each-way process that promises to increase the relevance of the items you see and the people you follow.

History

This takes you through your saved items, if you've clicked that button at all, as well as the items you have either liked or disliked. So if you use the save, plus OR minus button on any particular item, it will show up here in future.

I'm yet to work out the specific use of a list of articles I don't like, although I suppose it could highlight if a particular person you follow just isn't on your line of thinking, and allow you to unfollow them.

What Does This Mean?

To set this in a wider context, read this piece from the Independent's Rhodri Marsden on how filtering the content we encounter online and through other media formats will become increasingly important as the amount of communication becomes overwhelming.

Compare and contrast with this study of the diverse media landscape encountered by Twitter users (PDF link, be warned!).

Both were brought to my attention, appropriately enough, by a fellow Twitter user, the Independent's online sub-editor Rob Williams. Both serve valid arguments, despite effectively contradicting one another.

Marsden argues that filtering information will be essential in order to manage it, while the University of Cambridge study argues in favour of the uniquely diverse range of different viewpoints encountered on Twitter through links and retweets.

Either way, Project Emporia is essentially an app-based example of what the major search engines - Google included - have been doing for some time now. Social networking is steadily playing a greater role in determining search rankings, as the collective consciousness of millions of users worldwide is data mined to discover what real people - as opposed to predefined search algorithms - think is good content.

Will this affect SEO? Not directly, as having the right key terms in the right places should still be crucial to appearing in the search results at all. If anything though, it puts the spotlight well and truly on content quality, as a means of getting that plus button clicked on - in a sense, for some news outlets, that act alone could become a new kind of conversion.

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