You've probably seen lots of services that put pop up windows on top of links in web pages - usually for advertising and often in unhelpful places on the page. Could something like that be done well, though? Serial entrepreneur Craig Barnes believes it can be, and he's been working on it for more than 9 years.
Barnes says his new service Panels.net gets reader engagement numbers above 10% - an astonishing number in advertising. He says that's because his Panels are genuinely useful. At first blush they strike us as a little awkward but the potential here is big. Well selected, up-to-the-minute info about any link we see online sounds like a great idea - if it works.
How Panels Works
The panels include things like contact information, a map showing the entity's location, blog and news search results for the entity, job listings if available, traffic stats and financial information about companies. If the entity has reviews on Yelp, those are shown in the panel and Panels viewers can enter reviews of their own as well.
There's a site: search function for any domain in its panel, there's info pulled in from the Crunchbase database, there's a lot of information available in these little panels.
The variety of information is quite diverse and Barnes says what's served up is customized depending on what kind of entity you're looking at. You can see Panels in action over on Barnes' personal blog; the service will be rolled out to bloggers over the coming months.
The idea for Panels came from the nutritional panels on containers of food and the promise of putting rich information beside links to all the entities on the web is a very interesting one. There are four criteria we will end up evaluating Panels on when we see it out in the wild, though, and it remains to be seen how well the service will hold up.
Is it Unobtrusive?
As many of us found out with the recent launch of Google SearchWiki, adding symbols to a familiar, simple web page can be very disruptive. Ostensible Panels competitor Snap has faced years of criticism for their over-eager pop-ups.
We're not sure how Panels scores on obtrusiveness. Its popups are polite and relatively attractive, but the icons you have to click on to launch them are a little hard to swallow. It's a very fine line for services like this between being invisible and being used. We don't know what the solution is, but we do know it's a big issue.
Is it Truly Useful?
Fortunately the usefulness is immediately apparent when you look at a Panels popup. If you're interested in an organization's web traffic, financial trends, recent mentions in the press - and many of us are - then for many links Panels will serve you well.
Is it Up to Date and Well Populated?
Barnes says that a signifigant amount of thought has been put into caching much of the information served up through Panels. That's smart and we hope it will make a big difference. When we tested the panels they were sometimes a little slow to respond and many of the display options just said "coming soon." We would need to see this resolved before we were to, for example, put Panels on our site.
Is It Intelligently Delivered?
There are some decisions that can be presumed in the user experience here that don't appear to be now. We need clicks to be kept to a minimum. If, for example, we've clicked on 3 Panels icons on a page and navigated to the website traffic numbers first for each of them - then we'd like to have the panel pop up and go immediately to the website traffic view. (Update: On second look, it appears this is done to some degree, at least the first level of navigation is repeated in subsequent Panels.)
The point is that the user experience needs to be as smooth as turning a box of cereal around to look right at its nutritional panel. Right now the user experience doesn't quite feel that easy.
Long Range Outlook
Panels is a very good idea. If it can be executed upon well, and overcome the kinds of obstacles listed above, then we think this just-launched startup has as good a chance as any. We want it to work better than it does today, but we're sure it will.
Key information available about people and companies online could soon be at our fingertips at a moment's notice as we browse the web. That really is how it ought to be.