How Many Search Engines do We Really Need?

With the vast majority of Web surfers going first — and only — to Google to start finding what they need online, why have so many other search engines cropped up? Do they really offer their users something that Google doesn’t? Anthony Hart takes a look at some of the other major search engines, and tells you what he thinks.

In the news over the recent months, MSN, Yahoo, Google, Ask Jeeves and Amazon unveiled to the public their own unique versions of search engines. I have to ask, how many search engines do we really need to fulfill our quest for infinite wisdom? In my opinion, there are not enough differences between them to legitimize the need for six individual, but oddly stagnant search engines.

I welcome you to compare this to the Ice Cream Scenario. When polled, most of the American public voted that their most favorite ice cream flavor was either vanilla or chocolate. If this is true, what makes a manufacturer of a Neapolitan flavor of ice cream imagine he will have a significant change in the favorite ice cream of the American public?  The same argument holds true when discussing the choices when it comes to search engines. What makes MSN, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves and Amazon believe that with their product, they will be America’s Next Top Search Engine? If Google has anything to say about it, they will remain at the peak of their performance, with over 90 percent of U.S. Web surfers (and a substantial percentage of non-U.S. Web surfers) using their search engine today.

Google is one of the largest search engines ever created, indexing billions of  Web pages. Still, size isn’t everything. In fact, it’s counterproductive if your searches give you thousands of hits that mostly do not seem relevant to the topic for which you are searching.

Fortunately, Google’s excellent search algorithm retrieves an unusually high level of relevant results. Its system ranks every website’s importance based on the number of sites that are linked to the site itself plus the importance (as rated by Google) of these sites. In the vast majority of searches, this system seems to return the most high-quality, relevant Web pages first. In fact, Google sits first in relevance and accuracy of results while also ranked among the favorite in many other areas of user satisfaction (e.g., overall opinion of site, comprehensive results, reliability, and so forth).

In my opinion, Google is strictly a search engine, meaning you won’t find any special features such as a stock market ticker, travel reservantions, or even shopping. There are no news headlines or free e-mail accounts (not to the general public — yet); this search engine is simply used when you want to do quick, comprehensive searches yielding excellent results. 

Google’s search system is relatively a simple one with many advantages and disadvantages. One advantage that I am quite enamored of is the use of the minus sign to exclude a word and quotation marks to enclose a phrase. Every search word you enter is required to appear in every item that is retrieved, therefore, you don’t have to enter the plus sign to require that a word be displayed in your results. 

When searching for directions and/or maps via Google’s interface the user can simply type a specific address in the search box and the links will be displayed, leading them to either Yahoo! Maps or Map Blast. Clicking on one of those links will then display a street map for the address you entered. This is a very innovative way of finding directions because it now alleviates the need for the user to search for his directions on an outside site, say for example Map Quest.

Another plus in the Google corner is the pioneering way they use dictionary definitions. What Google will do is link to the definitions of your search words (although this is not indicated on Google’s search page). After a search has been completed, the first line displayed tells the number of results for the searched words and how long the search actually took. If the searched words are underlined, the user can click on them and be connected directly to the definitions gathered by dictionary.com (there are definitions from several other dictionary resources but the most prevalent listings are from this resource).

The only possible disadvantage with which I fault Google is that they simple do not search for “stop” words. These common words include words and characters, for example to, the, and I. Google will not search for them even if they’re part of a phrase.  In order to force Google to search for these words in a phrase, you will need to enter a plus before each very common word.

This will surely become the battle of our age. Stage left we have MSN.  The Microsoft Corporation has unveiled the full release of its latest and greatest search engine. What MSN has done is turn up the heat on the competition, namely on leading search engine Google. The creators over at MSN finally saw it necessary to offer its users a more “clean” search engine. The developers tweaked the site’s content, eliminating the annoying clutter plaguing its users. What really makes things interesting is that MSN has moved away from a model of just providing search results, but has adopted a more “answer-driven” approach. 

Microsoft’s new browser has definite peaks and valleys stemming from their viewpoint of how a true search engine should perform. I must give credit where it’s due: the functionality of allowing its users to be able to get definitions, calculations, geographical and historical information all from within one interface is pure genius. This MSN search has powerful sponsors: mainly those of Microsoft Encarta, Microsoft’s Electronic Encyclopedia and MSN Music Service. Microsoft maintains that it will be able to display results filtered from over eight billion Web documents located in their databases. 

My last argument in favor of this new search engine would be that with this newest browser, users will have the ability to create Really Simple Syndication (RSS), which allows users to track search results through an incoming data feed on their home computers. On the minus side, this same magnificent functionality could cause unforeseen issues regarding the security of both the user and MSN…and we all know what Microsoft’s security record is like.

In the red corner we have Yahoo, who rolled out their new search engine over a year ago. What Yahoo brought to the table was its own mechanisms for index ranking. Yahoo’s s purpose in introducing this medium to the market was to cast aside its dependence on Google for search results.

Yahoo’s new search engine has given the Internet community a well organized search page with integrated tabs directing their users to listings, news, images as well as any yellow pages that may be available. Although both Yahoo and Google use similar algorithms to return relevant search results, Yahoo offers a number of advantages over Google. Yahoo incorporates a link to any cached copies of indexed pages so as to limit the amount of time spent by their users, while its news search is powered in part by its own editorial and technological resources. 

Although Yahoo has made impressive strides to separate itself from the rest of the pack, the issue that will always cast it into shadows of peril is its lack or originality. What the principals over at Yahoo need to realize is that, in order to be the best, you have to be original.  I would love to see something radical from Yahoo, and not just something based on someone else’s hard work and design.

Rounding out the bottom two competitors of the field, let me introduce to you Ask Jeeves and Amazon (with its A9 engine). With the latest features of both Ask Jeeves and A9, both search engines are boasting that they have a more user-friendly interface. Although both companies approach the search engine world from different perspectives, both have made small but significant evolutionary steps in this search engine battle of the giants.

The advantages of both these distinctly different approaches of how to disseminate information to the viewing public are simply put by stating that the next generation of search engines isn’t going to be about who can build the bigger and better index, instead it will be about finding new ways to personalize search results, as well as inventing ways to modify the way in which those results are presented. 

I can honestly say that many of the other search engines make strong arguments as to why the browsing public needs a variety of search engines. However, as an avid Google search engine user, in my opinion they still have some way to go before they can beat the giant.

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