Searchme: Most Visual Search Engine Yet?

Visual search engines try to show us that there’s a better way to search than by looking at 10 links with snippets on a page and making an educated guess. Most try to say that they’re more intuitive. Searchme really is. Keep reading to find out more.

 

Let me say up front that I don’t see Searchme as a Google killer; you can’t search as fast with Searchme as you can search with Google, due to the nature of the interface. But the time you spend searching with it will be a lot more fun, and you have a much better chance of finding what you’re looking for on the first couple of tries.

I’ll start walking you through what it’s like to search with Searchme in the next section. Right now, though, I’ll point out that I’m not the only one who thinks the upstart company might have something. The $31 million it has raised to date includes investments from Sequoia; you may remember that VC firm as an early investor in a little search engine called Google.

Searchme boasts some good people too. Its chairman is Sequoia partner Mark Kvamme. Randy Adams, a longtime entrepreneur, is the CEO and co-founder with John Holland; Holland’s other hat is CMO. They all know the site needs a little work, since it’s in beta, and only has about a billion pages in its index. “We are no Google, of course, but we are trying something different to provide a new experience for search users,” Adams explained. “Most of all, we are trying to innovate in search, which is still largely a text and list experience.”

Meanwhile, Google provides the biggest hint that Searchme may be on the right track, as Kara Swisher, writing for BoomTown, noted that the leading search engine “does have a similar offering in its labs, but has not rolled it out.” But you’re probably tired of hearing the background; what’s so special about Searchme? I’m glad you asked.

That’s what our CTO Rich Smith said when I showed him how Searchme’s interface works. If you’ve ever used Coverflow on your iPod to find a CD, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Rather than showing you links, Searchme shows you screen shots of the web pages themselves and lets you scroll through them so smoothly you’ll think you’re flipping pages in a book. I can’t really do it justice here, because the screen shots I take won’t be dynamic, but here’s an example of a search on – what else? – SEO:

 

I had to crop and shrink to get it to fit, but I think you can tell what’s happening here. See that slider at the very bottom? You use it to move pages back and forth across the screen. Your search term is highlighted in yellow on each web page screen shot, so you can tell the potential relevance of the page. And the results aren’t bad; the first page that came up was the Wikipedia page on SEO, which is about what I’d expect.

Right clicking on the screen shot of a web page in the stack takes you to the actual page. Left clicking on a page simply brings it to the center — unless it’s already there, in which case it takes you to the actual web page.

That’s just a basic search. There’s a lot more to searching with Searchme. It uses AJAX and other web programming tricks to give you an experience that really doesn’t seem to need a help page – and that’s very high praise coming from me. I’ll show you what I mean in the next section.

So Searchme shows you screen shots of various web pages that you can sift through for the one that meets your needs. But you can’t actually read the page from the screen shot; at least I couldn’t. What if you want more information before actually visiting the page? That’s not a problem; just hover over it with your mouse and Searchme delivers, as you can see from the screen shot below.

 

A rectangle scrolls up smoothly from the bottom of the screen shot with the web page’s title, a blurb, and its URL. If you think the page is inappropriate in some way, you can click on the red “flag as inappropriate” link to let Searchme know.

What if you’re feeling nostalgic for that good old list of links approach to search? Not everyone is in love with visual search after all. Searchme has thought of the text hounds out there too. In my first image of the search engine in action, you may have noticed something that looked like a white dot below the slider. That’s actually an arrow (trust me, it’s a lot clearer in real life). When you click it, that list of links you’re longing for slides up from the bottom of the screen, as you’ll see in the screen shot below.

 

You’ll notice that one of the links in the list of links appears in a box. It’s highlighted in this way because it belongs to the web page that is front and center in the visual part of Searchme’s search results. You’ll also notice that a vertical slider appears on the right hand side of the text-based part of the page. That slider works only with the list of links; it does not cause the web page screen shots to move at all.

When you move the horizontal slider for the web page screen shot results, however, it causes the rectangle in the list of links to move so it corresponds to whichever page is front and center. If that link is not actually on the screen, the list scrolls until it is. When you’re ready to get rid of the list and go back to full-screen visual browsing, all you have to do is hit the arrow button again.

You saw in the previous section that Searchme gives you the option of using a list of links. The visual search engine also hasn’t forgotten about the long tail. You can search on a general term, as I did for SEO. But when you enter such a term into the search box, Searchme offers you a bunch of categories to help you focus your search. You have the option of clicking on one of those categories even after you’ve done your search to narrow things down.

The categories appear to the right of the search box in the form of icons with words. There are arrows on either side of the string of icons, so you can scroll through them. Here are the icons that appeared for my search:

 

You don’t see it here, because I had to scroll to it, but “online forums” was one of the categories Searchme offered. When I tried it, SEO Chat’s forums were in the fifth screen shot from the top. Not bad.

It’s pretty clear from most of what comes up, however, that they still need to do more indexing. I didn’t see Search Engine Land or Search Engine Watch at the top of any of the results I checked for SEO. This is disappointing, but not a terrible shock; remember that Searchme is still in beta. Nevertheless, having the scrolling categories is a great touch.

Again, I have to say that the interface helps you out in intuitive ways. To the right of the categories is a large black button that says “search all” in white. You can click that button at any time to search all of the categories for your key word. When you do, the categories go dim. When you click the icon for a particular category, that icon gets brighter, while the other icons and the “search all” button go dim. It’s a great way to help you keep track of what you’re searching.

Oh by the way, these aren’t the only options Searchme gives you. To the right of the “search all” button is a link that says “settings.” Clicking on that link scrolls down a menu that lets you choose whether to filter out adult content (it’s filtered by default), set the theme to day or night (it’s set to night by default), or open links in the current window or a new window (default is current window). Here’s a screen shot of the day theme, in case you were wondering what that looks like:

 

It’s clear that a lot of thought went into Searchme’s interface, and that the company is dedicated to improving it. I found very few nits to pick. I’d like to see an option for opening links in a new tab; I understand that this might be a problem to add, since it’s not compatible with most of the older search engines. I’d like to see some way to get a longer list of links, maybe with a split screen. But this didn’t bother me nearly as much as it did when I reviewed Quintura, so Searchme is probably doing something right here.

Overall I’m very happy with the interface. I could even see myself using it for searches involving my hobbies. I’m a crafter, so if I’m interested in making something, it’s a big help to see a picture of the object in question before following the link.

It’s the search engine’s results that concern me the most. Relevance should come with time as they index more pages and improve their algorithm. The ability to flag a result as inappropriate should help them catch spam, as long as users don’t abuse it.

Searchme is quite aware of spam as a big potential issue right now, as you can tell from reading Searchme’s blog. They also communicate on Twitter, by the way, so if you want to follow Searchme’s exploits or what is on the minds of some of their employees, you can. As near as I can tell, this is a company that is well worth watching, and I wish them luck. 

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