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PC World

Which search engine is best for you?

November 2, 1999
Web posted at: 9:33 a.m. EST (1433 GMT)


by Tom Spring

(IDG) -- Consider it a law of nature: The Internet is growing by the second. By 25 Web pages each second, say researchers--which brings today's total to roughly 1.3 billion URLs. That number will double in a year, predicts NEC Research Institute.

Too bad search engines can't keep up. Even AltaVista, which indexes an impressive 250 million pages, still lags. Yet without search engines we're all doomed to be lost in cyberspace.

"Search engine technology is still in its infancy," says Amanda Spink, an assistant professor of information sciences and technology at Pennsylvania State University. And an improvement is nowhere in sight. Worse yet, people don't use today's search engines effectively, Spink says.

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But we keep trying. More search engines are available today than ever before, Spink says. And the good news is there are passel of clever new search tools to help find what you're looking for.

Factoid Engine

Consider GuruNet and Flyswat. These two tiny software programs take a fresh approach to the Internet search by acting as a kind of instant information utility. They assume that fewer results are better than scrolling through 20,000 query results. So GuruNet and Flyswat hone in on aspects like dictionary definitions, business profiles, stock quotes, and links to relevant Web sites.

Is Bigger Better?

On the other side of the search paradigm are sites like AltaVista, Fast Search, and Northern Light. Their philosophy is that quantity does matter and that millions of hidden gems on the Web have yet to be unearthed.

They've got a point, but search engines that produce a zillion "hits" don't help when you want general information like the home page for your local newspaper. So these brawny search engines are trying to deliver brainier results--and fewer of them.

"[The] biggest problem is people get back too much stuff," Sprink says. "They don't know how to reduce the number of search query matches or manage information once they get it."

A recent search trend is technology that pushes more relevant results to the top. Ask Jeeves is a natural language search engine that pairs questions with an Olympic-size database of frequently asked questions. You choose from a list of answers Jeeves considers closest to your question. Jeeves will also translate your question to a standard search query and send it to several search engines.

Oingo also follows this trend and tries to discern the meaning of search queries. Oingo's premise is that words alone can't deliver what you want. Rather than match keywords, it derives "meaning" by scanning a half-dozen words on either side of a term for clues to the context.

Bucking this trend are Yahoo, Direct Hit, and Google. Each subscribe to variations of the theory that technology can't beat human smarts when predicting what people really want when they type ambiguous search terms like "java."

Yahoo is the godfather of hand-picked search results. It 150 human editors index relevant sites and organize them in a common sense manner. Humans can't outpace search engines when delivering results, but they can be more precise. You may get fewer results, but your search for "java" is more likely to produce relevant hits.

Direct Hit assumes the Net knows best when it comes to finding relevant searches. It anonymously follows where people go after getting query results, and how long they visit. For example, the more people who visit Disney's official Web site when they enter the term "Disney," the higher's ranking becomes in search results.

Big Brother's Search Engine

Albert, which moves out of beta in January, promises to track your search patterns and limit results to what it thinks you want, based on your search history.

So much for serendipity.

Spink says the one-size-fits-all search engine is a farce.

"People make the mistake of thinking the Web is more helpful than it really is," she says. "Right now it's still the Wild Wild West." But at least with so many search engines to choose, you might find one that is right for you.

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