Topix: New release improves timeliness, relevance

Topix.net just posted a new release of their site that features a new “algorithmic story editing technology”, new semantic category filters, a redesigned and expanded home page, and RSS feeds of search results pages.
I asked their CEO, Rich Skrenta(another former Netscape/AOLer) to explain a bit more about this new editing technology. He wrote me:
“We’re using the category information on stories to drive the frontpage selection. Overall, the function is to look for the “biggest”stories (per NewsRank) for the day, and show them. But we are up/down biasing certain semantic categories. Health +10%, Business -10%,celebs +10%, sex but only if it’s G-rated, lurid/crime/disaster is a bonus, sports is sent off to the Sports section of our site,unless it’s a really big sports story, or about the Olympics….that sort of thing. There actually are a lot of rules in the mix,and we’re still tuning it. But my personal experience is that we’ve been able to make the mix much more _interesting_ in the process.”
Skrenta also writes on his blog: “We want to de-homogenize the news selection; instead of averaging down, we want Topix.net to find and bring back the most interesting, compelling (and sometimes the oddest) stories from the deep corners of the web. Stories that won’t show up on other sites.”
This is really great, but I’d also like the team to bring in an interface designer to help in the next rev. While the easy-to-read presentation of the headlines and individual stories looks great, the new design crams every more info onto every page, resulting in a degree of clutter that’s paralyzing (does anyone really want a front page, for example, with more than 100 story lnks on it–plus navigation, text ads, banners ads, footers and so on?
Skrenta and co. would do well to explore how a multiple page format, perhaps with pop-up windows or DHTML or java-scripted collapsible views, could make such an onslaught on information more manageable.
Also, the level of freshness and relevancy in such a broad range of topics varies widely, depending on the flood of articles available–a Sunday night look at the page for Britney Spears had very few fresh stories; the page for South Orange, NJ was thin and pushing a July 26th story to the top made it look out of date (it wasn’t), while the Mary-Kate Olsen and San Jose, CA pages were full of new info.
(One of the nicest features of the new design is the new nav bar on the right, which offers pop-up links to previous queries/pages within the main sections–this elegant, efficient method keeps confusion down and drives more clicks.)
Having said that, the new release is basically great–and makes me a continuing fan of Topix.
Eager to see what they do next.