Things that still work

Surely not?

The idea for weegreen (wee as in small, and perhaps as in ‘we’ collectively; green – you know what that means don’t you?) was to marry the power of Google and its Co-op search engine  (a ‘collaborative’ search engine) and have real people filtering and categorising stuff, perhaps collaboratively – but not necessarily. It still works after all these years, but has not been curated for almost a decade.

Image from the Internet Archive

People like to search for things before they do anything else. They don’t know the url can be placed in the url bar cutting out a few steps.

It is almost universal now that the search engine is used to find even the most familiar website, which any half decent browser will remember. People would rather type in a complicated search query into google for a frequently visited site than type just one letter to return a familiar website in the url bar.

Turning to the question of using a search engine to find greener products, what is the point of serving of millions of results to users if:

  • most people only scroll through at most the first few pages?
  • the results are frequently cluttered with indistinct or inappropriate results (regionally remote)?
  • people have different search strategies which the search engines may not be able to cope with?
  • content in search engines isn’t structured according to the criterion in question (organic socks might work, but green socks?)

So our thought was for a ‘curated’ or ‘managed’ list of the the UK green shopping channels, suitably chunked into familiar overlapping categories. An Amazon of green stuff if you like, but with simplicity of Google and only the very basic categories (Tesco style.) We didn’t have the know how to do this from scratch ourselves, but in five minutes we had the basics sorted using Google Co-op, in 1 hour we were having fun with xml contexts or facets (one or the other).

The pure green shops were few in number, but would obviously grow. Even so we are still really saying there are only shades of green, so the ‘editing of consumer choices’ seemed legitimate (a supermarket does this you know!). OK this wasn’t an entirely new idea, Green Maven was doing a directory style thing in the US, also using the co-op approach – but this was an old fashioned directory model which was rapidly going out of date.

There seemed to be a gap over here in the UK and Europe for a cute green search engine that wasn’t run by a PR company (I don’t know if the company I am thinking about s still in business, so won’t say anything too disparaging), but an open and transparent and perhaps collaborative project.

Did we get any collaborators, you ask? Did we get any users, we reply. Enough users to pay for the odd stamp for the odd thing that still required a postie (Google adverts were used to generate the revenue). This was part of our learning: that people are often not as green as they say they are and are creatures of habit. We couldn’t find people we knew really well and that were were pretty green – yup the hairshirted, Guardian reading, tofu-munching sort (whats wrong with any of those? Ed.) that used it more than once or twice.

Their excuse? Oh we don’t shop that much and we buy everything locally; we don’t watch TV – we run a community theatre; we don’t listen to music – we make our own; we don’t restore and modernise our homes – we dig clay out of the earth with our bare hands and chop down trees with adzes; we don’t buy clothes or go on holiday, or have children, no not now that we know better. None of which is quite true, of course, but it was interesting to understand how green people perceive themselves as basically ‘non-consumerist’.

We knew they consumed quite a bit more than they would let on, but perhaps agonised a bit more than most. The chief difference was that they were not ostentatious about their consumption, slightly embarrassed would be a closer description.

Maybe because it took us less than a day to get our heads around developing the basics it was only natural we would get attention for less than a few nanoseconds … Was this a prelude to the age of apps? Are people’s concentration spans so diminished now that only a new app will turn them on, but again only transiently?

What did I say about people not going beyond a few pages of Google results?  Reality is closer to the first 3 results, which are probably just adverts. And herein lies a problem. It is not so much a lack of persistence, energy and drive (this is a problem actually, if we stop thinking), but a complete and unwarranted trust in the veracity of Google’s results (and ignoring as irrelevant the millions of other results which could be better, cheaper, greener, whatever).

We kind of knew all that, but thought we might be able leverage that last bit (the unwarranted trust – and we were after all getting a thousand visitors daily on EM). But I guess dozens of other’s thought they could do this too, with dozens of mutant Google engines masquerading as doing good engines (famously the black google was going to save some energy).

We learnt very quickly that trust just has to be built incrementally and over time, the hard way. Otherwise it is only 5 nanoseconds of fame.  Only a few can be overnight sensations like Instagram, and hey our CTO couldn’t program for toffee.

Were there any high points? Not really. We did deploy a couple of other co-op engines. The was never quite as up to the minute as we wanted, so we never abandoned our very own built in search tools for the main Ecomonkey site, which our CTO did reprogram rather cleverly.

We also made our own ‘corporate research’ tool that allowed us to do very rapid research on companies’ ethical and social responsibility, using our favourite repertoire of sites – imaginatively, we called it greenspy.

This probably saved us a bit of time, more than anything else. We liked it so much we built it into the company profile pages at e.g.

It obviously worked better with larger corporates, which were more likely to have public / press scrutiny of their CSR.

Nota Bene: this article written in 2012 was re-edited the other day, as Google gave me $100 for talking bullshit for about 1 hour, which reminded me I had various CSEs.