It's taken less than two years for Google to go from an upstart search engine to being a de facto benchmark. Not everyone uses it. But those with a savvy sense of what a search engine should be, do. It's quick. It's simple. And it has an uncanny knack of finding what you want much of the time.
But the Internet is all about new waves of technology replacing old ones. Even in the current oxygen-deprived tech economy, a new group of search engines have been popping up hoping to out-google Google.
They include Teoma, WiseNut and Vivisimo. They promise to get you what you're looking for faster. And in select circumstances, they deliver.
Teoma (www.teoma.com) is remarkably effective at finding expert sites, clearinghouses of information on a subject that can give you lists of links to use in research.
WiseNut (www.wisenut.com) is trying to outpace Google in the sheer number of Web pages that it has checked.
"There is no reason we have to stick with Google," said Greg Notess, founder of SearchEngineShowdown.com. "There are all these other search engines waiting in the wings for people to get tired of Google or who want a new approach."
Understanding the upstarts requires understanding what made Google such a groundbreaker.
The earliest search engines worked by taking the wording of a search and looking for the same pattern of words among millions of Web pages. They could help you find a specific Web page, but the result you wanted could be mixed in with thousands of other listings that were irrelevant. For instance, if you typed in the words "rental car," you might have to look through pages of results before you found the sites for the major car rental companies.
What Google did was change the paradigm. How do you choose between all the Web pages that have the words "rental car" in them? Why not list the most popular Web sites first, since those are most likely to be the sites someone is searching for.
To do this, Google looked at links between pages. The idea is that if I put a link to your page on my Web site, I'm voting for it.
Taken to a massive scale, the concept is powerful. If 10,000 people vote by linking to a Web page, chances are that it's a pretty useful spot.
If you're looking at pages containing the words "rental car," chances are good that you'll turn up sites run by the major rental car companies and not some academic paper posted by a business school professor in Michigan.
Nearly every search engine has adopted part of the Google philosophy. Most analyze links when developing their results.
"Google changed the landscape. They showed if you had better technology and people tried it, they would switch," said Paul Gardi, president of Teoma. "Now we're trying to walk through the door they opened."
Among the search engines giving Google a run for its money:
--Teoma. The Internet consists of hundreds of thousands of interlocking communities. Some are organized around a subject. Some are organized around an affiliation or a geographic region. Communities might include enthusiasts of old Beatles albums, sites for owners of Dodge minivans or sites that relate to coal mining towns in Appalachia.
Apostolos Gerasoulis, a computer science professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, came up with a way to identify these communities and then put your search question only to communities that may be relevant. The result is Teoma, a site that looks at a relatively small subset of the Web when answering a question.
In practice, Teoma's focus helps a lot when you are first exploring a very broad subject. It gives you a good list of results. And on the right-hand side of the page you get a list of expert sites that have tons of links within the community to get you moving.
One drawback is that the site has indexed only about 100 million Web pages, far less than most of the others listed here. Gardi said that amount will increase as the site moves from experimental status to a full launch.
--WiseNut is the most Google-like of the upstarts. Started by Yeogirl Yun, a founder of shopping comparison site mySimon.com, it is spare and fast.
There's very little clutter in the results. It also is in a competition with Google to see who has the broadest content. The company claims to have indexed 1.5 billion Web pages that it can use in its searches. Google claims 1.6 billion.
Breadth doesn't guarantee you'll get what you want. But if you're looking for something obscure, it can help. WiseNut also has a "Sneak-a-Peek" feature that allows you to glance at the Web pages listed in your results without actually jumping to them.
On the downside, WiseNut's text sometimes is too small to read easily. One key feature, dividing searches into categories, doesn't work nearly as well as on Vivisimo and Teoma.
--Vivisimo. Strictly speaking, Vivisimo (www.vivisimo.com) is not a search engine. Created by researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University, it is a meta search engine, which means it takes a question and puts it to a series of other search engines. Vivisimo organizes the results into a usable list with subject categories.
At Google, a search under the word "apple" gives you a long list of Web sites related to Apple Computers. The same query on Vivisimo offers a series of categories. One gives links about the computers. But it also offers up categories for farms and orchards, cider, recipes and the singer Fiona Apple.
If you were interested in any of these latter nuances, Google would make things a little harder unless you type in a more detailed search. Teoma and WiseNut also provide category listings, though they're not as comprehensive.
Vivisimo's biggest drawback is that it can be slower than the others because it doesn't do the searches itself.
Google hasn't been standing still. It's been increasing the breadth of its indexing and adding resources. You can use it to search archived postings from usenet groups, the subject-oriented discussion groups on the Internet.
Responding to criticism about its news content, the site has been adding three news story headlines at the top of each results page.
With all the new search activity, there are still plenty of easy questions that can leave any of the search sites stumped.
Another pitfall is in the freshness of each engine's content. The Web is a great place to keep up-to-date on the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan or the terrorism investigation at home.
Type in "Afghanistan map" and all the engines will give you a good overview of the country.
But type in "Taliban news" and all of them come up short. Most of the links are to articles from July or even two years ago. That's because most search engines, Google included, index Web pages only once every few weeks or even less frequently.
Most Web pages don't change that often. But news is a big exception.
Craig Silverstein, Google's director of technology, said the company has been working on more frequent updates of pages that change regularly, including those that deal with news.
Still, if you want the latest stuff, you've got to go to a specialized search engine. One of the best is Moreover.com. This site enables you to search headlines off nearly every news site, from CNN to the newspaper in Eugene, Ore. Another worth checking is Daypop.com. It scans and searches several thousand news Web sites.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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