Google Custom Search Engines Open Worlds of Potential

The development of the Internet, and later search engines, has put a wider (and sometimes deeper) range of information at more users’ fingertips than ever before. What’s more, it has empowered users to find exactly what they’re looking for – the ultimate in “personal media,” if you will. But large general search engines have their faults. What if you could build a search engine that focused specifically on your own interests?

That’s exactly the service that Google unveiled with its Custom Search Engine. Now you don’t need to be a programmer to create a search engine; what’s more, the search engine you create will be vertical, based on the topics and web sites you choose. Do it right, and users of your custom search engine (including you, of course) will benefit from results that are far more relevant to their needs than what they can find at Google itself.

As we’ve often seen, Google isn’t the first company to enter this arena. Other companies that offer customized search include Rollyo, PSI, and Yahoo. But Google is throwing its brand, coolness factor, and – let’s face it – almost intuitive grasp of what should and should not be part of a user-friendly interface into this project. As an outgrowth of Google Co-op, this move throws Google right into the midst of the social search and web 2.0 world, a field in which the search engine giant had actually been lagging behind Yahoo.

From a user’s perspective, the most exciting part of it is that you don’t need to be a programmer to build a search engine anymore. You just need to have reasonable web surfing skills and an area of expertise (or at least a good hobby, preferably one you pursue with a certain amount of passion). Google is aiming its Custom Search Engine service at bloggers and others with web sites who want to offer focused searches to their users, and its potential is nothing short of enormous (more on that later).

So how do you build your very own search engine? There isn’t enough room in one short article for me to take you through the whole process; at best, I can give you an overview of the options, information, and interface that Google offers. To quote Google’s site, when you build a custom search engine, you can:

  • Place a search box and search results on your website.
  • Specify or prioritize the sites you want to include in searches.
  • Customize the look and feel to match your website.
  • Invite your community to contribute to the search engine.

Google has an excellent link to documentation for its custom search engine (http://google.com/coop/docs/cse/) which includes an FAQ and other materials you’ll want to read before you attempt to build your own engine. But let’s say you’re the sort that prefers to simply dive in. What will you find?

First of all, you need to have some kind of Google account. Assuming you have one, you can go to the Google Co-op link for new search engines (http://google.com/coop/manage/cse/) where you’ll see a number of text boxes and radio buttons. I’m sorry if the images are a little blurry, and that I couldn’t fit everything into one image, but it’s too much information for one browser screen.

On this part of the page, Google is asking for basic information. You have to name your search engine (I resisted the urge to name mine something like “Fred”) and describe it. Then you choose the keywords on which you want it to focus. I thought I’d build one focused on SEO, and limit it to one site; this was only a test after all. I discovered that there is a character limit in the search engine keywords box, so choose wisely when you build yours.

Scrolling down, you can put URLs into the next text box, one per line. At your option, your search engine will either search only those URLs, or the entire web but with a focus on the URLs you specify.

You’ll notice a reference to Google Marker in this section. That’s something you can add to your web browser that makes it easy for you to add and label sites for your custom search engine. It’s as easy as adding it to your favorites or bookmarks. When you find a page you want to add, you just click on Google Marker – and the nice thing is, you can choose to include OR exclude the entire site, or just that one page. So if you’re creating a search engine for a website on the science of global warming, and stumble across some sites that deliver a highly politicized twist on the topic, eliminating them from your possible results is as easy as hitting a couple of radio buttons. You can also label sites and pages with Google Marker.

The Collaborate with Others radio button unleashes the potential to make this a truly social search engine. You can choose to work on the search engine yourself, or you can allow others to volunteer to add to yours. You always have the final say over volunteers; you can accept them or reject them, and you can even reject them after accepting them (though all of their contributions are taken out of your search engine if you do so). If you just want to invite others rather than have them volunteer, you receive a limited number of invitations to send out (about 100). It’s all covered in the CSE FAQ.

The next screen lets you actually try out your search engine with your very own search box. If you like your results, you can click “Finish,” but even then you’re not done. You get links to your engine’s home page, control panel, and a “delete” link if you don’t want to keep it. The control panel looks very much like the page you started with, and allows you to make changes.

A number of people and organizations have already built custom search engines to suit their needs and the needs of their users. To take the example I hinted at of a search engine that focuses on the science of global warming, Real Climate (http://www.realclimate.org/) focuses on the science without the politics; all entries are vetted by scientists in the field before they’re added to the engine. Searching on ethanol in this engine, for example, delivers a nice assortment of news items and highly scientific articles.

Intuit offers Jumpup (http://www.jumpup.com), a search engine specifically aimed at helping small businesses find the resources they need. This is a full-fledged site, with all sorts of resources on its own, and an apparently thriving community. You can choose to search only the Jumpup site, or top business resources selected by Intuit. Unlike Real Climate, when you do a search on Jumpup, you get a set of sponsored results to the right of the organic ones (more on that later).

Excavator (http://www.winexcavator.com) is a vertical search engine focused on Microsoft technology and news. You can do a general search, or try an advanced one (which offers the familiar options of looking for “all of these words,” “exact phrase,” and others). You can perform a search based on a predefined term; there are fourteen to choose from on the home page, covering security, networking, development, news and analysis, and more.

Tech Stuff (http://vik.singh.googlepages.com/techstuff) lets you enter a search term, then filter your results for reviews, forums, news, and several other categories (one at a time). Like Jumpup, this website displays ads.

AI Research (http://vik.singh.googlepages.com/machinelearningsearch2) is a custom search engine devoted to machine learning. I asked it “what is machine learning?” and received some interesting options before the organic results (though sponsored links came up first). There were a variety of links I could click on sorted by the level of the material, the specific application, the methodology, and the algorithm style. This is the kind of search customization that you can’t get from a general search engine, but is practically indispensable if you’re doing intense research on scientific and/or scholarly areas.

I mentioned that some of the search engines already built with Google Custom Search Engine included sponsored links. These were supplied by Google. That’s right, building a search engine with Google is free, and it can make you money! This is perhaps the real reason Google is offering CSE, lurking behind Google’s statements about improving search experiences for people; it’s another way for Google to deliver a highly targeted audience to its advertisers.

Aside from the purely monetary aspects though, the ability to create your own search engine without having to know code opens up a plethora of possibilities. Imagine parents and teachers – maybe whole schools – creating search engines that can help students with their homework and research, which exclude misleading (or even unsafe) web sites. Or how about a small group of hobbyists building a web site around their hobby, complete with its own search engine that makes it easy to share newly-discovered resources? And speaking of discoveries, scientists in any field could benefit from building a customized search engine to help further the exchange of ideas.

In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and make a prediction. As a result of this new service from Google, within two years we will see the rise of a new occupation: search engine designer. Remember, before SEO became a separate occupation, everybody was responsible for doing it for their own sites; and while it’s still possible to learn how to do the basics yourself, many companies trying to win high rankings in the SERPs for competitive keywords find themselves turning to professional SEOs.

Google CSE is rather like Dreamweaver and other website design programs, but for search engines; you don’t need to be able to code from scratch (which opens the field to far more people), but there are still certain things you will need to know, and be prepared to put in the time to learn, to make a really good vertical search engine that people will want to use. Since more people want web sites than have the time or know-how to create and maintain them, we have web site designers. Since more people want to score high in the SERPs than want to spend the time learning SEO, we have SEO professionals. Like web site design and SEO, building a good customized search engine will be found to be as much an art as a science; many will create such engines to feed their own passions, but many organizations will turn to professionals to get the job done. SEO and SEM, meet SED.

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