Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Creating a bare-bones link blog with Google Notebook

I love Google Notebook. Its Firefox add-on is the most full featured web clipping tool I’ve seen, and because it’s Google, there’s never a problem finding anything. One or two clicks will save text and pics, and you can find what you’ve saved with lightning quick search. This lack of friction makes it a formidable notemarking tool.

But I think Google Notebook’s social features tend to get overlooked. That’s weird, because it’s dead simple to collaborate with friends & coworkers or publish your notebook via the Web. Socially speaking, its closest competitors are one-trick ponies allowing you to either collaborate (OneNote, Zoho Notebook) or publish (Evernote).

To publish a note book or invite collaborators, just click “Sharing Options” at the top of any notebook page.  With its simple sharing options, Google Notebook makes it easy for you and your friends or coworkers to create a highly annotated “link blog” that includes your comments, tags, and highlighted text. (FYI, mine is featured permanently in the sidebar of this blog). And each published notebook has an RSS feed. Not so revolutionary, you say? Ah, but Google Notebook has a unique, blue-shaded comment area that can be used to explain why a link or snippet was saved. It’s the perfect input for personal aggregators, such as FriendFeed or Tumblr.

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Unfortunately, Google Notebook’s collaboration and sharing features are pretty spartan aside from the features mentioned above. The service could be improved dramatically just by addressing a few shortcomings.

  1. Identify authors of posts and comments. Seems pretty basic for a collaborative app, but Google doesn’t tell you who created a post or who authored subsequent comments.
  2. Allow public comments on published streams. Again, this seems pretty basic. If it’s viewable by anyone on the web, why not allow anyone to comment?
  3. imageTrack changes. If you change a note or write a new comment, the date stamp will be changed to today’s date. But there’s no way to see what changes were made.
  4. Make tags clickable. Even where Google embraces the use of tags, they’re not real smart about displaying them correctly. Surprisingly, clicking on a tag doesn’t display a list of items with that tag, unless you’re using the awkwardly designed “Labels” menu? But why should you have to scroll to access similarly tagged items. To make matters worse, labels aren’t clickable at all on your published notebook (and there’s no labels menu, either).
  5. Optimize feeds for RSS readers, social aggregation sites. Feeds for published notebooks look terrible. But with a little sprucing up they could become extremely useful. For some reason, notebook feeds don’t include tags. And the comments aren’t currently formatted so they can be parsed by social aggregators (e.g., Friendfeed). And, of course, comments aren’t identified by author.
  6. Give each public note it’s own permalink. What good is collaboration if I can’t share exactly what I’m working on? The lack of a permalink for each entry is probably the most shocking non-feature.

I don’t mean to sound so negative; after all I still like Google Notebook enough to use it in my public blogging workflow. But the overall sophistication of the product makes the exclusion of these basic features inexplicable.

It’s possible that some of the shortcomings I’ve listed are actually a form of rudimentary privacy control. As we saw in the outcry over Google Reader’s expansion of the “shared items” function, users may actually be fond of Google Notebook’s obscured URLs, non-existent permalinks, and lack of authorship identity. It’s a security blanket that provides a kind of “quasi-private” collaborative environment.

Whatever the reasons for hobbling the sharing features, it’s disappointing because Google is some 20% time away from creating a superior shareable notebook that doubles as a full-featured, collaborative link blog. 

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