Using the Internet has been compared to trying to do research in a library where all the books are scattered throughout the building in various random places rather than arranged neatly in order on the shelves. With than analogy, Google and the major search engines become the “card catalogues,” which these days are on a computer even in the smallest and most antiquated of public libraries. But the analogy is far from perfect, as there are corners of the library that the major search engines don’t reach as well as they might. What do you do then?
Well, if you’re an experienced researcher, you start consulting specialized indexes of resources. Depending on what you’re looking for, these range from the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature through specialized encyclopedias (such as the Encyclopedia of Associations) through online resources for particular fields, such as law and medicine. To take the library analogy back to the Internet and search engines, this is where specialized search engines come in.
This brings me to the topic of this article. One of these days I’d like to do a “roundup” piece that covers a variety of these businesses that have sprung up in the cracks that Google, Yahoo!, and MSN have left for others. Today, though, I’m going to review just one: Kosmix. This company was in the news recently for creating a political search engine that allows users to see their results organized by conservative, liberal, or Libertarian leanings. But that’s actually only one of three search engines offered by Kosmix; the other two focus on travel and health.
So what kind of results can you expect from a search engine that specializes in particular areas? Are they more helpful than you can find just from putting the same query into Google? Being the research hound that I am, both by inclination and occupational necessity, I had to take a look.
Kosmix was founded in 2004. The site is so new it’s not even labeled “beta;” it’s labeled “alpha,” which, as the company explains in its FAQ, means that it’s the first release of the website. As you would expect, they encourage feedback so they can make the site better. And it looks like at least some of the site’s indexing is done by humans; one of the company’s job listings was for an intern, “a student who is an expert in Web-surfing and can efficiently and accurately analyze large amounts of information.”
Judging from other information I saw in the FAQ, Kosmix is going for depth on particular fields rather than the breadth you see with the major search engines. As it explains, you can use one of the Kosmix search engines to research topics that are not related to that engine’s specialty (for example, using the medical search engine to research topics unrelated to health), but “you’ll get much better results if you stick to health-related topics.” This is exactly what I would expect of a specialized search engine.
But enough with the preliminaries; it’s time to do some searching! The first thing you see on the Kosmix home page is a search box with three friendly tabs: Health, Travel, and Politics. Below the tabs are two orange buttons. The Travel tab was the one that was active when I hit the site, so the buttons said “Search Travel” and “Let Me Explore.” (I’ll explain the “Let Me Explore” button in just a moment).
For the Travel search engine, Kosmix recommended typing in a destination. I typed in South Florida, since that’s an area with which I have at least a nodding acquaintance, and clicked on the “Search Travel” button. At the very top, much to my amusement, were two Google ads. But I forgot that quickly when I saw the first option listed: Explore Kosmix categories.
You see, along with the usual results that came up, Kosmix displayed a little box on the left with categories. At the top of this box, I saw that “All Results” for my search came to 310,496. But Kosmix also gave me a list of categories that included Hotel Webpages, Restaurants, Kid-Friendly, User Reviews, Travel Guides, and more. Clicking on the “Explore Kosmix categories” link let me browse the top three results in each category.
It’s pretty good, but I did see a result that explained why these search engines are alphas. The second result under the Restaurants category was for one located in Charleston, South Carolina. Still, the company does have a feedback form, so just for the hell of it I clicked on the link to the form and filled it out. You get to answer five questions. The first one asks you whether you would recommend Kosmix to other people, on a scale of one to ten. The second question is for what search terms you used. The third one asked which search engine you used (and there is a box for “Not sure”). The fourth space is for feedback, and the fifth is for your email address, which is optional.
For whatever reason, clicking the “Done” link did not take me back to a page on the Kosmix site; it took me to SurveyMonkey.com. Presumably this is the company that is handling Kosmix’s surveys. I had expected to receive a “Thank you” page, with a link back to Kosmix’s home page so that I could do more searching. I do hope they change this.
Since I was no longer on the Kosmix site, I decided to go over to Google and put in my comparison search for South Florida. Google naturally returned 784,000,000 results, with ads running down the right side. That’s when I realized the real virtues of Kosmix. You see, in order to get the same kinds of results with Google that I got with Kosmix, I’d have to perform separate searches for South Florida restaurants, South Florida museums, South Florida hotels, and so on. This means that if you’re not a power searcher or you don’t want to spend a lot of time putting in separate terms and checking results, Kosmix can save you a lot of time.
Going back to the Kosmix website, I decided to put in the same search I did before, this time clicking the “Let Me Explore” button. This took me directly to the same results I reached when I clicked “Explore Kosmix categories.” The results page I saw when I clicked the “Search Travel” button was unsorted, but even there they seemed more relevant to someone visiting South Florida than Google’s results page for the same search.
I couldn’t leave it alone at travel, of course; I had to check out at least the health search engine as well. So I performed a search for breast cancer. Kosmix really shines here. Categories include Basic Information, with subcategories on Prevention, Treatments, Symptoms, Causes, and more; Expert Information from journals, clinical trials, and case studies; plus Diet & Nutrition, Message Boards, Fitness, Blogs, Alternative Medicine…all neatly separated so that I could explore each one. I was surprised to see a category for Men’s Health; I knew men could get breast cancer too, but I wasn’t expecting 197 hits! Turns out some of them were for prostate cancer, but other links looked fairly relevant.
At this point, just below the box on the left that listed categories for me to click on, I finally spotted a link labeled “Personalize your results.” When I clicked on it, it took me to a page that would let me define my interest level in each health area: not interested, interested, or very interested (“interested” was clicked by default in all areas). I could choose my interest level for five different information sources, three different treatment options, and three patient types (Babies & Kids, Women’s Health, Men’s Health). Helpfully, next to each of the options listed was a link labeled “What’s this?” which, when clicked, led to a brief description of each category.
So I made a few changes, saved my personalization, and repeated my search. This time, I could click on a link below the categories box that said “Your Personalized Results.” These results were different from the ones I saw without personalization. Was the difference significant? It’s hard to say. Still, the personalized results did turn up a link about breast cancer and family history on the first page that didn’t show up so early without the personalization. Given that most searchers don’t look past the first page—and that a family history of breast cancer is particularly relevant in my case—I’d give Kosmix a few points for that.
I had to check out the political search engine, too, at least briefly. So I typed in “Marriage” (apparently everything is political these days). The results were pretty much as I expected them to be. For example, the Reason Foundation came up near the top of the Libertarian results, with an article on “Outing Government from Marriage.”
To be fair to Google, the search engine giant did pretty well when I searched for breast cancer; it even returned news results related to the topic, which Kosmix didn’t. And it turned up pages that Kosmix’s political search engine missed on marriage, such as the Alternatives to Marriage Project. On the other hand, when I put a more politically charged topic into Google, the top sites were all conservative; Kosmix’s political search engine allows you to gain easier access to a range of views. That may have implications for search engine optimization.
So what do I think of Kosmix in general? I really like their approach as far as separating topics into categories, and letting you browse the top results in each category. And I like the fact that it offers a range of views. I would like to see the company add news stories as a separate category on some of the searches, as those would be highly relevant for certain things. Of course, Kosmix isn’t for every search, but it doesn’t endeavor to be. All in all, I think the search engine is off to a decent start. It will be interesting to see how it performs in its next iteration.