Computers

Gilster: Better tools needed for online content discovery

CorrespondentApril 13, 2014 

Content discovery tools are going to be a hot niche. Consider Zite, an app that can track down content based on your interests, and one that gets better as you use it. Just when I was going to write a glowing column about Zite, it was sold to Flipboard. We’ll see what happens next.

For now, Zite is still available in the various app stores, and it’s a useful paradigm of this software category. Each day the software updates and presents you with stories based on the interests you’ve chosen. You can then go through the stories and, when you find one particularly useful, give it a thumbs up, which tells the software more about how to fine-tune your results. It took a week of feeding Zite my likes and dislikes before I was getting consistently interesting stuff.

Now Zite disappears into the Flipboard content aggregation service, where we can hope it will continue to function as a component of the larger magazine-style app. Why Zite didn’t zoom to huge success is a mystery to me, especially since it should have been highly visible (it was previously owned by CNN). A new entrant called Reverb is emerging, though at present it’s available only for the iPad. Because I’m sure it’s headed for other devices, both the iPhone and Android, I’m going to describe it here as an example of the issues content discovery faces.

Learns from behavior

Reverb presents itself a bit like a magazine, but the first thing you see is a “word wall” that includes the topics you give it to work with. While the software learns from your behavior, I found it balky unless I manually added topic after topic – you do this by typing in your interests, and the more the better. You wind up with a screen packed with topics that lets you swipe to the right or left, with your most personalized recommendations at the far left of the wall. Swiping to the right starts pulling up topics that are less directly related but may still have a bearing on your topic. Tap to call up a story and you get suggestions for further stories at the far right of the text.

You can use Reverb with your social networks, but I take advantage of the default, which uses nothing more than the input I give it and then matches stories to my declared interests. You can then flip back and forth between the word wall and an article view that shows headlines from the articles for the day. Reverb, still a young product, takes a lot of training, and I’ve found it nowhere near as responsive as Zite. It’s also laden with topics that the developers inserted, so that you own items are interspersed with news and features that can be completely off topic.

Breakthroughs needed

You can tell the software to delete a given topic, but unhappily, the only topics that can be deleted are ones you’ve added. The ones the developers have inserted remain, making it less customizable than I would like. Reverb also mixes in articles with “collections,” which are clusters of stories on the same concept related to your topic. I found this confusing – I have a stream of articles, but several of these are actually boxes of multiple articles. As a discovery tool, Reverb shows promise but the software, still in the development process, needs work and will, we can assume, be tweaked with the help of user suggestions.

Content discovery is a category that is wide open for breakthroughs, a way of reaching the average user with customization features that offer far more than connecting you with friends you’ve never heard of on social sites. Keep your eye on Reverb as well as Flipboard as it digests its Zite acquisition. And bear in mind that this is what computers are for, to help us find things we need while ranging over vast collections of information. This market niche is ripe for growth.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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