Leading Edge / Winter 2009
Up Against Google

With BlogScope, a U of T computer science group is taking on the search titan in the realm of public opinion


The explosion of blogs, message boards and other online forums for public opinion is providing an unprecedented window into what people around the world are thinking.

Illustration It’s a potential dream for anyone – from marketers to politicians – who wants to gauge public opinion.

But brand managers who want to know what, say, Australians think of their product, or whether an ad campaign generated any interest in the blogosphere, may not find what they’re looking for in Google search results.

Enter BlogScope, a new search engine under development by Professor Nick Koudas, doctoral student Nilesh Bansal and a team of graduate and undergraduate students in U of T’s computer science department. BlogScope’s web crawlers scan all public user-generated information on the Internet – including almost 30 million blogs, millions of YouTube videos, Wiki edits, message boards and microblogging services such as Twitter – multiple times a day. They also monitor more than 50 news sites, along with readers’ comments about articles.

While Google currently dominates the market for Internet search, Koudas sees room for a specialized program that provides more context for search results. “We try to make sense of the results,” he says.

Using different coloured fonts, BlogScope indicates whether the content of a search result expresses a positive, negative or neutral opinion. It can also sort results by gender and age (between 10 and 30 per cent of bloggers disclose these details). A world map pinpoints where the search term is written about most frequently.

The program also provides a list of topics that are closely related to the search term. Users might get a list of side-effects of a medication, for example, after typing in the drug’s name.

One of the search engine’s most interesting features is the “popularity curve,” which allows users to track through time what people are writing about most often. “Ten years from now, you could ask what the important events were associated with the Iraq War,” says Koudas. With BlogScope, users can also compare the popularity of topics (such as “Obama” and “McCain”) and see how the rankings change day by day.

The U of T team has filed a patent and is putting the final touches on the interface. The group is working with the Innovations Group at U of T and MaRS to commercialize some features of BlogScope, although a basic version will be free. A beta, or test, version without all the features mentioned here, is available at www.blogscope.net.


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