Ask.com, Answers.com outperform more popular Web engines
Even as they become more savvy, the Internet's leading search engines still sometimes bog down in befuddlement when a specific kernel of knowledge is sought.
Hoping to fill the gap, Answers.com (from GuruNet Corp.) and Ask.com (from Ask Jeeves Inc.) have pledged to provide more adept responses to vexing but straightforward questions about history, science, geography, pop culture and sports.
Both search engines aim to provide a correct answer explicitly at the top of a search's first results page -- or with a highly placed link to a Web page that contains the information.
Their mission raises a question: Just how knowledgeable are these search engines?
To find out, I staged a very unscientific test consisting of questions culled from a recent edition of Trivial Pursuit.
My mock game pitted the avowed prowess of Answers.com and Ask.com against the Internet's most widely used search engines -- Google, Yahoo and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN.
The findings: Answers.com and Ask.com appear to be a small step ahead of Google and noticeably smarter than Yahoo and MSN when dealing with such esoteric questions as "What glass beads are created when a meteorite strikes the Earth's surface?"
Both Answers.com and Ask.com guided me to the correct answer (tektites) with the first link on the results page -- an aptitude that both sites displayed with 10 of the 20 questions posed in the theoretical game. When they didn't get the answer with the very first link in response to some questions, both search engines generally came through within the next two links.
Although they performed similarly in our game,-Answers.com and Ask.com rely on different formulas.
Answers.com relies on a combination of Google's search engine and human editors who have stoked its database with answers to frequently asked questions that they've obtained by poring through reference materials.
Ask.com, part of a Web family about to be acquired by e-commerce conglomerate InterActiveCorp for $2 billion, has devised a fully automated approach that fishes through the Internet's sea of information.
Although they are superior to the other search engines at this task, Answers.com and Ask.com rarely realized their ultimate goal -- making things as clear-cut as possible by summarizing the correct response at the very top of the results page so it wouldn't be necessary to click on a link and peruse another Web site.
Ask.com spit out a concise "Web answer" in just two of the 20 questions, while the only time that Answers.com delivered was when I sought the definition of "googol." (It's the number one followed by 100 zeros.)
Google, which drew its name from that mathematical term, fared reasonably well in the competition. The Internet's most popular search engine came up with the correct answer on the first link in eight of the 20 questions (including the one about tektites). That's something Yahoo did just five times and MSN only twice.
None of the sites was omniscient. Answers.com, Ask.com and Google each drew blanks on three questions (I considered it a miss if a link to the correct answer didn't appear within the first three pages of results). Yahoo and MSN each whiffed on six questions.
There was only one question that baffled all the search engines, "Who was the first Cuban defector to play in Major League Baseball?" Although they all contained references to him in their indexes, none of the search engines could figure out it was Rene Arocha, a pitcher who first signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in the early 1990s.
Though it lagged behind the other search engines in this competition, MSN looked brilliant on one question that stumped all the other search engines: What company was acquired in the biggest leveraged buy-out deal of all time? The first link on MSN's results page took me to a site that correctly listed RJR Nabisco.