Search Engine Alternatives to Google

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2440, 2006-10-06, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 22-23) and their website.

When it comes to searching the Internet, most people nowadays first think of Google's eponymous search engine. In fact, it's practically been made official — at least, in the minds of some lexicographers: In July 2006, the word 'google' was added to the 11th edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, as a verb, meaning "to use the Google search engine to obtain information…" Even the stodgy Oxford English Dictionary added the verb "Google" to its online version, one month earlier.

But as Google invades the English language, it has not necessarily won the search engine war, though it certainly is ahead. According to comScore, in July 2006, Google (including Google Image Search) accounted for 43.7% of all U.S.-based searches, while Yahoo (including AltaVista, AllTheWeb, and Overture) garnered 28.8%. MSN captured 12.8%, Time Warner (including AOL Search and Netscape Search) slipped to 5.9%, and Ask.com (including Excite, iWon, MyWay.com, and My Web Search) got 5.4%.

Clearly, Google is the dominant search engine at this time, but the others have not thrown in the towel. All of the firms competing with Google have invested untold hours and dollars into gaining new search engine market share, or at least not slipping further behind the Goliath from Mountain View.

They do this partly through continued marketing, but also by adding new features — especially those not found in Google's search engine (at least, not yet). Just because the "also-rans" are behind the leader in terms of popularity, that certainly does not imply that they are behind in functionality.

Ask and You Shall Receive

Ask.com, formally known as Ask Jeeves, may have a small slice of the current search market, but it has a large commitment to provide more to its visitors. For instance, Ask.com provides previews for many of the search results, each one indicated by a small binoculars icon. When the visitor hovers their mouse pointer over the binoculars, a pop-up displays an image of the corresponding homepage. As of this writing, Google has nothing similar — though, knowing Google, they probably have something in the works.

Ask.com's search results tend to be much more limited than Google's. For example, searching for "global warming" resulted in 98,200,000 hits on Google, and "only" 3,297,000 hits in Ask.com. It is debatable as to whether or not this demonstrates that Google offers a far more sizable database of indexed Web pages — and thus presumably greater chances of a visitor finding what they want — or instead that Ask.com generates more focused results — quality, not quantity. But given that most Web searchers rarely look beyond the top 100 sites listed, the point is likely moot.

Yet that all-important first page shows the differences between Ask.com and Google. Using the previous search as an example, Ask.com begins the page with a summary of climate change, with links to overviews and resources. To the left is a representative image, and immediately below are a few links to the search phrase appearing in the latest news. Unfortunately, directly underneath that are three "sponsored results" (i.e., advertised links), which the visitor sees before the top organic results. Additional sponsored results are displayed at the bottom of the page.

Google's cleaner design separates organic and sponsored results into left-hand and right-hand columns, respectively. Ask.com utilizes the right-hand column for two handy sections, "Narrow Your Search" and "Expand Your Search". Underneath the former heading, one finds links to related Ask.com searches incorporating more search words — probably the most popular ones. Underneath the latter heading, the Ask.com search links do not include the original search terms, but instead closely related ones. This feature could be especially valuable for anyone who is struggling to figure out the best search terms to use.

Searching and Stepping Lively?

Microsoft may own the desktop, but it doesn't own the Web. Yet that certainly has not stopped it from trying. Microsoft's search engine, MSN Search, has replaced its busy portal look with a much cleaner and more attractive interface that combines Web 2.0 styling with Google-like simplicity.

Continuing with our earlier ecological search phrase, MSN Search brings up 2,176,862 results. The very top of the MSN Search results page displays the search phrase in a new field, above which are links to the following: Web (the current page), Desktop, News, Images, Local, and Encarta. As one might expect, clicking on any one of these links searches within those services for the search terms given by the user.

To the right of that search field is a drop-down list box, which includes the aforesaid six services, in addition to links for "Lookup word", "Stock Quotes", "Find Movies", "Shopping", and "Music". Underneath the search field are links for advanced searches, settings, help, and Spanish. It is not clear as to why some of these services are listed above and below the search field, others only in the drop-down list box, and some in both locations.

In terms of the ever-present sponsored results, MSN Search combines the worst of Ask.com and Google, by listing them above the top organic results as well as in the right-hand column. Fortunately, both sets tend to be fewer in number versus the competing search engines. Whether this is a result of the goodness of Microsoft's heart, or a dearth of advertisers choosing MSN Search, is probably unknown.

Do You Yahoo?

In second place to Google, Yahoo has integrated its search service into its homepage, in the top banner. Similar to MSN Search, Yahoo has links above the search field: Web, Images, Video, Audio, Directory, Local, News, Shopping, and More. Yahoo distinguishes itself from some other search engines by making it easy to search for video and audio files.

Using the search phrase "global warming" one last time, Yahoo reports 35,800,000 pages found — far more than Ask.com or MSN Search, but much less than half of Google's. Yet as noted earlier, what matters is not the total number of links found, but instead the appropriateness of those listed as the top results, on the first page.

Moreover, of paramount importance are the capabilities and usability of any additional search tools, including the advanced search feature offered by every major search engine. This is arguably where the competing search engines reveal their true strengths and weaknesses, because it is the advanced search facilities that really make it possible for you to find the needles in a haystack of tens of millions of Web pages.

All of the aforesaid engines allow narrowing a search based upon Web page modification date, language, and domain name. Searching using Boolean logic (e.g., warming NOT global), is more difficult using MSN Search. Ask.com does not appear to allow searching by file format. Google lacks geographic filtering; but it adds SafeSearch, as does Yahoo.

Competition is good, as is choice. Perhaps if you try some of these Google alternatives, you may find yourself a new favorite search engine.

Copyright © 2006 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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