I've been testing out the beta of the new blog search engine, Sphere. I think it's safe to that if the company can scale up for loads of new traffic and iron out a few kinks, it will be a very useful tool.
Sphere, its execs admit, is clearly benchmarking Google's blog search. It has the same sparely-designed page and it gives users the choice between date and relevance. The difference appears to be that Sphere's relevance search focuses on influential blogs, while Google picks blogs that are contextually relevant.
In this area, Sphere still faces some kinks. I just did a search on Technorati, and three of the first five relevant results were from the same blog: Steve Rubel's Micropersuasion. No offense to Steve if I say that users will want more diversity.
UPDATE: Sphere CEO Tony Conrad just showed me a button that lets users select relevant search by the last day. This makes a big difference that I failed to note in the paragraph below. An upcoming feature, a histogram, will let users search for results in a precise period of time, for instance, seeing what bloggers were saying about Dan Rather in the week following the controversial 60 Minutes program last year.
This system also risks presenting out-of-date posts. I just did a search on "Judith Miller" on Sphere and Google Blog Search. Sphere's first return is a five-day-old Crooks & Liars post. Five of the other top six posts came from before Sunday's issue of The New York Times, which carried Miller's first-person account. Big names include Instapundit.Many seem out of date. Google's, by contrast, are all from the last two to 14 hours, many of them from bloggers I don't recognize.
Blog search involves a difficult calibration between relevance, authority and timeliness. I have the sense that Sphere has the tools to handle the job, but first needs to retwist a few of the knobs.
The new search engine has plenty of features that I like. At each link, you can click on the blogger to get profile information: Average number of posts per week and blogs recently linked to. I would also like to see the number of incoming links, to get an idea of the blog's reach.