Sunday, September 26, 2010

Reducing the Clutter

One of the most common, ongoing complaints I get about Atlas Quest is the cluttering of search results. Old, abandoned boxes that are out of date, boxes that are known (or at least strongly suspected) of being missing, but still showing up in search results. Over the years, I've made a few stabs at the problem such as fixing listings manually that come to my attention.

Then there was the period when I went through a whole series of methods of dealing with abandoned listings. First I had set up the site so others could automatically adopt them if the owner hadn't logged in for a year, but then I'd get irate e-mails from the occasional person who'd come back about their boxes being set out for adoption. Then I created an "abandoned" status so people could see at a glance that the box might have issues and the listing may not be up-to-date, but then I kept getting requests from folks asking to adopt them (which I had stopped allowing). Seems like no matter what I did with those abandoned listings (either because the owner no longer logs into Atlas Quest at all or because the owner just doesn't update the status of their boxes when they are known to go missing), someone would be up in arms about it. And yet, nobody likes those listings.

As Atlas Quest ages, it's a problem that continues to grow worse and worse.

So once again, I'm taking another stab at the problem. =) Now, if you head on over to the Advanced Search page, you'll find a few new options. Near the bottom of the page, just above the options to hide your plants, finds, and attempted boxes, there are three new options. Let me tell you about each of them....

Hide Abandoned Boxes
This option removes from the search results any box whose owner has not logged into Atlas Quest for at least six full months. The boxes may be perfectly viable, but if it isn't, there's probably nothing in the listings that would let you know. If you have trouble finding a box, sending an e-mail off to the owner probably won't get you any results. So a lot of people would just as soon not look for such boxes.

Technically, I should point out, it's actually only hiding abandoned listings on Atlas Quest--the owner may very well be maintaining their boxes and simply be regular members of (It happens quite often, in fact.) But as far as AQ can determine, the owner simply isn't around maintaining their listings on Atlas Quest. The fact that their boxes are also abandoned is just an assumption.

There are approximately 53,000 active boxes listed on Atlas Quest, and this search option would knock out about 4,000 of them from the search results. To insure your own boxes don't get "knocked out," just make sure you've logged into AQ at least once every six months. Additionally, I've decided to enable this option as a default for most traditional box searches.

Hide Strikeouts
You probably don't know what a 'strikeout' is, since I just made it up last night. =) It's what happens when you look for the box but then fail to find it. You've struck out! Some people will go so far as to record their attempt on Atlas Quest, and if you look at the history of attempts on the box, you might see a long list of failed attempts. (One particular box listing has 62 consecutive attempts on it!) Does it mean the box is missing? Not necessarily. It might mean that the box is really, really tough to find. But if there are several consecutive attempts on a box, more often than not, it's usually missing. And most people do not enjoy trying to find boxes that are likely missing.

So I took the baseball analogy here. Three strikes, and you're out! Checking this option will remove from the search results any box where the last three entries on the find report are all attempts. Setting your preferences to hide attempts does not make your boxes immune, either. If there are a lot of attempts on your box, you can't "trick" people into looking for a box that they don't want to find by hiding your attempts.

If you like a challenge, you'll want to keep those strikeouts in your search results. Since most people don't, I'm also making the default for most searches to not include strikeouts.

What if one of your boxes has three (or more) attempts but it really is active and still can be found? That's part of what maintaining your listings is about. If the box is still there, you can record a "find" on your own box and reset the strikeout counter back to zero. Everyone has the power to reset the counter to zero, and if the attempts are bogus, part of maintaining your listing is to let everyone know it.

Only 865 of the 53,000 active boxes on Atlas Quest have "struck out" as of today. (I haven't run the numbers because the database query starts getting a heck of a lot more complicated, but I suspect the great majority of these would also be from abandoned listings.)

Hide Old Finds
Many folks want some reassurance that a box is still there by checking the last found date of the box. If the box was found within the past week, the theory goes, it's much more likely to still be there than a box that was last found a year ago.

Of all the theories of reducing cluttered search results, this is the most dubious one, in my humble opinion. I know a lot of people out there subscribe to the theory, and I'm willing to help you out by giving you an option to remove from the search results any box that hasn't been found within the last six months (that's what this option does), but it is not enabled by default.

I have a lot of boxes I've planted on long hikes, and they often times don't get any finders for years at a time. I've planted boxes in Africa and Central America which rarely get any visitors, even though--so far as I know--the boxes are still alive and well. And I've planted boxes that have such cryptic and difficult clues, that few people have ever solved them. There are many legitimate reasons a box may not have any recent finds on it, so I while I'll give you the power to remove such boxes from the search results, I won't make it a default.

For those of you who do have such boxes and are worried someone might skip over it due to it having no recent finders, you can "push up" the last found date by recording a find on the box yourself. Since this option isn't a default, however, I don't think it's really worth the effort. I don't intend to record finds on all of my rarely found boxes just to update the last found date.

For a box that has no finders (yet!), the plant date is assumed to be the "last found" date. It's the last date that AQ knows somebody was at the box and can verify its existence on that date.

A whopping 31,492 boxes of the 53,000 active listings would be cut out of one's search results if you used this option. Which, IMHO, just goes to show how incredibly unreliable using the last found date is in determining if a box is still viable. But it's an option for those who want to make use of it.

Out of curiosity, I tried extending the cutoff for "recently found boxes" to one year, and that would have cut out 25,606 boxes. Extending it to two years would have cut out 12,995 boxes. It doesn't really seem to matter what the cut-off time is.... relying on the last found date would cut out a LOT of viable boxes from your search results.

So there you have it! Hope you enjoy the new options, and I hope it unclutters your search results a bit. =)


David Baril Jr. said...

I had a box planted and there were 5 attempts before the next person found it! I would be very upset if my box for one reason or another struck out! It was clear that the people that went to find the box cant figure out how to read my brand of clues! If any of my boxes strick out, I will repost them as new boxes and host the same clues!

Ryan said...

Don't repost the box. Just record a "find" on your own box. It doesn't affect your F-count. That's what it's for--to let people know you're still checking up on the box and maintaining it. Much quicker and easier than reposting clues.

-- Ryan

Complete Loonatics said...

I like the option to use these new search parameters - my concern would be for a box like I my search earlier today turned up...
There were 4 recorded attempts - the first was by an individual, the 2nd-4th were by each member of a group that box together (all same date). This box did turn up on my search because it was part of a series. But, I can imagine a situation where the first missed attempt on a stand alone traditional box is by a group of boxers who each record it and then it would no longer show up on a search using the default settings...
Still, overall I like it.

Ryan said...

I did consider grouping all attempts recorded on the same day as a single find for that very reason, but eventually gave up because the database query for it was running slow and it's pretty easy to mark a find on your own box to reset the attempt counter.

Basically, as long as you're willing to maintain your listings, there should never be any reason your box will "strike out."

I deliberately made sure that it was possible to get your box out of any situation that might cause it to be excluded. The only catch, however, is that you are expected to maintain your listings. (But that was expected before, too!)

Anonymous said...

All I can say is "You Rock". The fact that AQ (through you) is constantly reinventing itself makes life just a little more special.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure I'm in the minority, but I'd love a tools that I could filter down to JUST the boxes that haven't been found in a couple years - those are some of the most fun to hunt!!

David Baril Jr. said...

Ryan, I feel that would defeat the purpose of "3 strikes!" Can you say "Loop Hole?"

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the "Strikeout" feature. It encourages LOs (letterbox owners) to maintain their letterbox listings. I especially like that LOs can hide attempts but can't actually "trick" people into looking for a box that they don't want to find by hiding attempts. 3 strikes seems fair. At that point the LO can post a maintenance visit and a note telling folks that the box is there, but the clues are tricky or the box is elusive.

Ryan said...

Team NH: It's supposed to be a loophole. I don't want to "punish" people who actually do maintain their listings. Just because a box has struck out doesn't mean there aren't any innings left to play! =)

So planters can post a maintenance find and start a new "inning." It's a heck of a lot easier for everyone than deleting a box and relisting it all over again.

The baseball analogy starts to fall apart after that. On AQ, there are an unlimited number of "innings" available--as long as the planter tells AQ to start a new "inning." =)

-- Ryan

Teresa said...


I especially like the 3 strikes feature. Team NH: It's not a matter of whether or not the box is "missing." It's a matter of hard it is to find. If five people in a row list an attempt, and I'm on vacation and have a total of 3 hours in which to go boxing, it really doesn't matter to me whether or not the box actually still exists. I'm more interested in whether or not I'm likely to find it given the limited time I have. And most of the time, boxes that a majority of people can't find simply have poor clues.

As for screening out boxes that haven't been found in a long time, that will favor drive-bys and short hike boxes over the longer hikes. In my opinion, there are too many drive-by boxes relative to real hiker boxes, so I'm not sure this is a good thing.

Jarna said...

Awesome stuff you're doing here! Thanks so much I love the new options.

Blue said...

will AQ tell us (it is so omniscient) when one of our boxes has struck out?

Anonymous said...

I have mixed feeling on the 3 strikes, I like it, but think 3 is to low. 5 is usually he point where I get concerned if a box is there or not and start looking for other clues of why it has so many in a row. - SITE

frykitty said...

Six months seems a bit short for abandoned boxes, but I'm relatively new, so I'll have to trust your experience on that. It does make me sad that there is no way to be a caretaker for a box. Many alternatives have been suggested, but nothing has stuck. Your new abandonment provision means that a box I've unofficially adopted, and that has recent finds, will still show as abandoned. I'm sure it's one of many.