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ALTOM: Go above and beyond Google for Web searches

June 22, 2009

It's getting so you have to use a search engine on the Internet to find a search engine. There are now dozens, perhaps hundreds, many of them highly specialized. Most have niches based on how they work or the kinds of results they feature.

Google is still the undisputed master of the realm, with some 70 percent of the searches and search-engine marketing dollars in America, which puts it so far out in front that even Microsoft has run out of breath trying to catch it. The stakes are well worth the attempt to unseat the emperor. Last year, Google alone took in some $22 billion.

But Google has its drawbacks. For one thing, searches can take a long time, because you're going to get references, not answers. You must go and get the answers yourself. For example, if you want to know how old Gov. Mitch Daniels is, you have to Google his name and then hope one of those pages will have that data.

Undeterred by its past failures, Microsoft has once again hurled itself against the Google titan with its Bing search engine. The interface is decorative, and looks more like a Web application than Google does. Bing has a few nice features, but a search for "IBJ" in both engines got me comparable results, starting at the top with www.ibj.com. If I lost Google, I could see myself moving to Bing. It's not bad, but at this point, it's just not a big leap forward over Google.

The constantly morphing ChaCha remains a nifty alternative for some searches. The name isn't taken from the dance, by the way, but is descended from a Mandarin Chinese word for "search." ChaCha was conceived to be a two-step search engine. The first step is to ask a human your question, and the second step is for that person to do the tedious looking for you and give you the answer. It's still working that way, but some things have changed over time.

A major difference now is that Cha-Cha focuses on the mobile market rather than the desktop, as most search engines do. Because ChaCha uses real humans between you and the technology, mobile exchanges are easier for the user. It also permits asking your question by voice, which for many people can be a huge benefit over Google's presumption that you know how to frame questions for computers to use. It's being reported that ChaCha gets some 600,000 questions each day, and all are answered for free. Unlike Google, ChaCha can be conveniently used on the go, from a mobile phone.

WolframAlpha.com is another new entrant into the field, and one that's received a lot of press. It's not a textual search engine at all. It doesn't crawl pages and look for keywords. Instead, it pulls together data and stores vast quantities of it, then spits it back out as answers, not lists of page results. This is both good and bad; with Google results, you can scan for what you need, but with Wolfram Alpha, you get what you get. In fact, its creators refer to it as an "answer engine," not a search engine.

For example, a Google search of "Mitch Daniels age" got more than 75,000 results. The one at the top was from an encyclopedia and it had his date of birth, but not his age. The second listing had his age, but only up to the time the page was updated. WolframAlpha had his age freshly calculated to the current month (he's 60 years and 2 months old as of this writing). WolframAlpha can give remarkable answers to English queries. To the query, "What is the 30th-biggest country by population?" WolframAlpha responded with a list of the 28th- through 32nd-biggest countries, with Argentina smack in the middle.

My vote for the least-appreciated search engine goes to Kartoo.com. It has a search box like most engines. The search results, however, are shown with each page as its own icon, with "connectors" showing where links go from site to site, how many links there are, and what keyword is used in each link. It's more network diagram than results page, and it makes Web page evaluation much easier in some cases.

The Mitch Daniels age search produced essentially the same pages Google and Bing did, but the biggest page icon is www.mymanmitch.com, because Kartoo thinks that page most likely has what I want. That page shows connectors to other surrounding sites, such as www.in.gov and www.indystar.com. You can refine your search with a single mouse click. The interface may seem cluttered to someone used to a simpler textual one, but for those who like pictures instead of text, it works wonderfully.

Go out and try some of these and let their creators know what you think.•

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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