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Search Engine Mania

Source: ABCNEWS.com


The Internet is getting to be more and more like Hollywood. Successful movies spawn numerous copycats, and this is now happening with search engines as well.

Since Google is making money and is expected to bring in big bucks in a midyear IPO, suddenly search engines are the next big thing. But unlike in Hollywood — where the spin-offs, rip-offs, and clones are seldom as successful as the movie that spawned them — search engines just keep giving users better and better tools.

Google began with a unique page-ranking concept that determined page popularity by looking at the number of references from other sites.

Before Google, the top engine was arguably AltaVista, which went south after Compaq bought Digital Equipment Corp., the company that maintained it. Before and after AltaVista, a slew of interim hotties came and went. The original progenitor was WebCrawler. Among the popular search engines was the still-popular Yahoo!, which took the directory approach and provided search as a secondary mechanism.

Yahoo! will probably be the only company unscathed in the upcoming battles, unless it chooses to associate itself with the looming mess. The biggest mess-maker will be Microsoft, which suddenly thinks this is somehow its business too. It intends to release a new search service using natural-language queries, much like Ask Jeeves. Ask Jeeves has never impressed me, and the company has invested years in this idea. What is Microsoft going to do differently?

Natural-language searching means that instead of typing "Dvorak writer magazine" to see which magazines I write for, you would type "What magazines does John C. Dvorak write for?" This eventually leads to "If John C. Dvorak writes for magazines, what are they, where are they, and does he have a phone number I can call?"

Do this with Ask Jeeves and you get a "sponsored" link to a telephone directory CD-ROM that you can buy. Then there are two come-ons for magazine subscriptions and a link to "books by Dvorak." This is followed by links to incredibly obscure blogs that mention Dvorak columns. Useless.

To see how poorly natural-language parsing works, use Google's translation function. If companies can't create decent machine translation, how can they use natural language for search queries? Still, Microsoft will do what it does best in areas outside its core competency: muddy the waters.

Not all is lost: A recent issue of MIT's Technology Review details some of the new approaches to searching, including the unique clustering methodology employed by Mooter (www.mooter.com). Instead of a list of search results, you get clusters not dissimilar from those found at the quirky Kartoo (www.kartoo.com).

The search engine mentioned in the article — and one I've been toying with — is Teoma (www.teoma.com), ironically now owned by Ask Jeeves. It often outperforms Google in accuracy and in putting exactly what you want at the top of the results list.

Some of this may have to do with Google's abandonment of its ranking methodology because of the emergence of redundant cross-linking, which is something many outsiders blame on nearly 5 million slaphappy bloggers and their so-called blogrolls.

The continued advantage of Google over the competition, though, is the Google Web cache. It's amazing how many pages are off-line but still available in the Google cache. Unless a new engine comes along and duplicates this feature, there's no way Google can not stay on top of this game.

Then there's the issue of the deep Web, or what was once called the hidden Web or the invisible Web. This typically refers to database sites using content management systems that crawlers can't index. This is why when you do a search on "John C. Dvorak," you get very few hits on the hundreds and hundreds of online and print columns I've written.

At least one start-up is working on this problem. The current methodology is to use metasearch engines (the ones that attack all sorts of little engines and piece together the results) like WindSeek (www.windseek.com) or specialty search engines, such as All academic, (www.allacademic.com).

However this shakes out, at least one thing is certain: We'll have a lot of different search choices, and that's pretty much the only way we can navigate all this information. Cheer these people on.

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APR. 12,  ISSUE #012
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