Exploring a New Search Engine: Galaxy IT

Google leads the pack as far as search engine market share, but that doesn’t stop other companies from trying to reinvent Internet search with new approaches. Galaxy IT thinks its visual interface provides users with a more intuitive way to search. Should Google be worried?

 

The short answer is no, of course, but new ideas in search deserve a good look at least, and perhaps some encouragement. Galaxy IT says they use “fractal-grid technology” to display search information in a visually organized manner. They note that this approach can be used to display any information that resides in a database.

There are plenty of other search engines that offer a more visual interface than the 10-links-per-page-in-a-list setup popularized by Google and the other major search engines. Quintura lets users enter a keyword and returns a cloud of words to help you focus your search results, for example. So Galaxy IT’s concept is not totally unique.

It’s clear from their About Us page that the company has a sense of humor and is enthusiastic about what they’re doing. Company founder and CEO Dr. Rod King has a multidisciplinary background in civil engineering, infrastructure planning and regional development planning; he also invented the fractal-grid technology. From the page covering the team working on the search engine, though, you’ll find out that he’s funny (ask him, he’ll tell you), wordy, and brilliant, which is a good thing “or we’d all be writing software for a start-up company. Wait a minute…”

More seriously, the Galaxy IT team was humble enough, since this project is still in the alpha stage, to list the top ten things they expect to get slammed on in reviews. We’ll return to that top ten list in a bit, especially since some reviewers have disagreed with the items that Galaxy IT expected to get criticized for and added a few of their own. I’ll say only that their attitude seems to be good – or at least what you’d expect of a start-up in this field. Attitude won’t get you all the way, though, so it’s time to take the search engine out for a spin.

So what is this fractal-grid technology and how does it work? It might help to picture a tic-tac-toe board – that can be expanded to infinity. That was King’s original inspiration when it comes to search results. Your keyword is in the center square, and surrounded by eight other results. You can adjust a toggle to zoom in and out to get more results, all surrounding the original nine-square grid.

Okay, so let’s see this in action. Before I start searching, though, I’m going to show you their search box:

 

So far it looks pretty simple, right? Well, I’m not entirely sure what the difference is between “classic” and “organized,” and I’ve read their press release. But let’s dig in anyway. Valentine’s Day wasn’t that long ago as I’m writing this, so I’m still thinking about flowers. Let’s see what happens when I search for them:

 

As you can see, “flowers,” my search query, is in the middle box. In the top row are links to a number of online retailers who sell flowers, along with short descriptions. Across the bottom are two other florists, plus a link to a flower garden show coming up in November. In the middle row are two links to the same Wikipedia flower article.

I’d like to draw your attention to the far left, where you’ll see an indicator that says “levels” sitting in the middle of the scale. You have a choice of O, 1 (the default) or 2. So what happens if you take it to 2? Here’s a screen shot:


The original query is still in the center. The numbered boxes around it correspond to the original responses you saw in the previous screen shot. But now there are eight more boxes around that original set – and each of those boxes contains nine more, rather like a variation on an old nine-patch quilt. I hovered over one of those smaller boxes so you could see what happens: you get a tooltip that gives you a little more information about the link. The boxes are so small that there really isn’t any other way to provide you with extra detail.

Are those boxes a little too tiny for you? There’s another way to get that fractal effect without going quite that small. Move the level indicator back to one, click somewhere on the screen, and use your scroll wheel. The boxes move in and out, showing more levels without giving you something that looks like a nine-patch. Here’s a screen shot of what happens when you “zoom out” to the next set of boxes:


You may have noticed four tabs on the upper right of the grid. Those four tabs correspond to the “topics,” “images,” “video” and “news” items we saw earlier when we looked at Galaxy IT’s search box. So, using the same query, and the default 1-level setting, this is what you get when you click on images:

Pretty nice, eh? I have one little complaint though: hovering over the images doesn’t give you any further information about them, so I have no idea why there’s an image of a person in the lower left hand corner.

Oh, and there’s one more annoyance with the interface: the back button doesn’t work the way you expect it to. I know they’re working on it (they mention that in several places). But let me give you an example of what I mean. The collection of images in the upper right space looked interesting, so I clicked through – and was a little disappointed to find a list of files rather than a larger version of the actual images with more information. Naturally, I hit the back button – and instead of taking me back to the screen I’d just left, I faced Galaxy IT’s empty search box. As I understand it, this kind of problem is not unusual for flash-based interfaces.

Now what happens when you do an “organized” search rather than a “classic” one? According to the company’s press release, an organized search offers users “an infinite galaxy map with their search topic in the center and related categories of topics surrounding the main search. Each category of topic is in turn surrounded by eight results.” Here is what it looks like for flowers:

So we can choose from “flowers in the attic,” “flowers for algernon,” “flowers hospital,” and more. But clicking on these categories doesn’t do anything; for that, we have to scroll out. At this point, the interface’s use of color comes into play, to good effect. When you get to the next level, each set of nine boxes corresponds to one of the topics from the original query – and color-coded borders help you keep them straight. Let me show you what I mean:

Since  “flowers for algernon” was in a purple box, the items that Galaxy IT found which pertain to that topic are also in a purple box. In effect, you’re performing nine separate but related searches all at once.

This is an immensely cool feature, and potentially very powerful. But there are a number of problems with the interface itself, and its execution. I’ve mentioned some of them, and I’ll cover the rest in the next section. To be fair, Galaxy IT is in alpha mode, so you have to expect a certain number of bugs.

As I mentioned, Galaxy IT included a top 10 list of things they expected people to complain about. Yes, it loads slowly, though that wasn’t too much of an issue with my tests. Yes, switching levels takes time. But I don’t care if their ads aren’t relevant, and they shouldn’t be worrying about that yet either.

They do need a help screen, or at least an FAQ; surprisingly, that’s not one of the things they expect users to complain about. It’s been my experience that intuitive interfaces usually aren’t, and that their creators are the last ones to realize this. The best intuitive interfaces take 15 minutes to grasp (sometimes less, if the creators of the interface are really on the ball and have run it through lots of tests). You can shorten that time, and keep your users from getting frustrated, by including an FAQ that walks through the important stuff, preferably with pictures and a clear explanation.

For example, I didn’t fully understand how the “organized” search worked and what it was supposed to accomplish until I tried it out. I’m a writer, so I put a very high value on words, but a few images in the right places to accompany those words would have gone a long way toward helping any user understand what Galaxy IT is trying to accomplish.

There are other aspects of the interface that could be better explained as well. You can refocus your search by moving one of the outside boxes into the center, but it took me a while to figure out how to do that (you need to click the box at the top, when your cursor changes to a hand shape). And another reviewer noted that you don’t always get the results you expect when you do this. Brad Linker from Download Squad explained that “when we searched for ‘Eee PC,’ one of our results was ‘Eee PC reviews.’ When [we] dragged that box to the center, our new search turned out to be just ‘reviews,’ so we wound up with reviews for a ton of unrelated products.”

Certainly, Galaxy IT has an interesting concept, but the execution needs a lot of work. It’s intended to be a visual interface, but it can be visually tricky to understand. Worse, it doesn’t quite perform the way one would expect it to. And perhaps worst of all for something that is new and supposed to change the way one looks at search, it doesn’t sufficiently explain itself. I think many of these problems can be fixed, though I’m not sure how they can make it appear visually less cramped. It would be interesting to check back in a year to see how the company and the interface have evolved. For now, however, I’ll be performing my most important searches in a different galaxy, er, search engine.

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