WhatBird FAQ
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What is WhatBird?

Basically WhatBird is a web based search engine designed specifically for quickly finding objects in any collection. WhatBird works with any thing that can be organized into a collection, provided they share common characteristics.

So how is WhatBird different from a search engines like Google?

Google scans the web and gives you back links to web sites that may or may not be relevant to the text you entered. With WhatBird you don't type any text, and it does not search the web, rather with WhatBird you click on icons and it scans its built in database. Furthermore WhatBird does a step by step search, and at each step it narrows down the matches in the database.

Why is that better than simply typing the name of your bird into Google?

There are two major reasons. First, in order to find what you are looking for on Google, be it a bird or a laptop or a fact about the world, Google gives you back "hits" which are links to web sites that contain the text you entered. So you have to visit each site to see what it offers. You have no way of knowing what you will find. Second, Google does not help you do any kind of identification, for example if you saw a bird with a crested plume that was black, entering "crested plume black bird" in Google just gives you thousands of sites that you must examine one by one. WhatBird on the other hand will find every bird in its database with a black crested plume. You can see what they look like in a list of icons, and you can click on any of these icons to get more information.

Okay I think I understand the difference, but don't I still do a lot of clicking in WhatBird?

Not really. Almost any bird can be identified in just a few clicks. Especially if you have been observant and noticed a distinguishing feature. There are over 50 different attributes in the bird database that you can search on, and there are over 700 different birds. Finding a bird usually takes a few minutes at most.

Is WhatBird a commercial product?

It was. We once sold a desktop version of WhatBird, thinking people would want to use it to organize there own stuff, build collections to search in clever ways. But we eventually discovered that was not a large market, people don't have time to build databases.

Do you offer some kind of service to make money?

Right now we are offering the bird search engine for free. We built it originally as a demo of the underlying technology. But because I love birds so much I wanted it to be the highest quality. That turned out to be a real challenge, for example you need great illustrations, bird call audio examples, extensive species information, and so on. I eventually acquired all that and we suddenly had thousands of people visiting the site.

Will WhatBird ever be a commercial product?

Eventually we want to market it to webmasters to give them a better way for people to search there data. But that's a ways off.

So how do you support all this work, I mean it must be expensive with all those great drawings?

We have some Google and Amazon ads running but they hardly pay the bills. At some point we might make this a subscription-based site and charge some minimal fee to have access to all the data but right now it just feels good to know that I am helping people who love birds find them and learn about them.

Ok so much for altruism, can you tell me more about why people would use WhatBird over others that do the same thing?

Well it turns out there really are no other sites that do the same thing as WhatBird, which is identify birds in a step by step manner. What I mean by this is that while there are web sites that claim to help you identify birds, they don't really do that. Let me give an example. One of the larger sites is called The Bio Diversity Institute Internet Field Guide to Birds. You can click that link to see it. What it does is typical of most of these sites: you are presented with large collection of field mark menus. You select attributes of the bird from these such as geographic area, body size, shape, wing characters and so on. After selecting all you know about the bird you click a Submit button and the site finds every bird that matches your choices. Sounds good but what you get back are either dozens of birds or, if you picked characteristics that don't match any bird, you get back nothing. Not a great experience.

And how is WhatBird different?

With WhatBird you select just ONE characteristic of the bird at a time and that makes all the difference. For example you can pick something called Location. You are presented with all the states, provinces, coasts and islands in North America. You select the one where you saw the bird, say California, and then the search engine presents you with a list of all the birds that are in California. We call these the matches. Now you pick a second attribute, say Size. As you go though this process the number of birds in North America is reduced until you find your bird.

Aren't there other examples on the net that help you find a bird?

There are other sites that help, but they do it in a crude way. I am not disparaging these sites, just pointing out that while they might be informative, they are not good at identifying. Take enature.com, one of the most popular destination sites for learning about nature on the web. They present a simple list of bird shapes. We have that too, but the problem with enature.com is that the search ends at that point: you click a shape and are presented with a matrix of tiny photos of  the birds with that shape. You have to click on each one to see a larger picture and figure out if it looks like your bird. I would call this akin to a regular book field guide, not an ID engine.

Anything else you want to tell me about WhatBird that makes it special? 

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of WhatBird is one that the least obvious, which is something we call smart attribute and value elimination. When you do a search, WhatBird keeps track of each attribute and value you select. After each step the attributes and values are filtered to just those that are relevant to the remaining matches. So for example if you have picked a set of birds that happened to all be the same color, there is nothing gained from presenting color as a selection, and so that attribute is eliminated from the search window. Same thing with values. If those matched birds do have different colors but none of them have black as a color, the value "black" is not presented in the color attribute. This might not seem very profound, but it seriously reduces the possibility of picking a value or attribute that will lead to zero results or not narrowing the search. This is why we say "always a result" because with smart attribute and value elimination there is no way you will end up with no birds found.
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