Taking Search for a Spin

by , Mar 30, 2005, 2:50 PM
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The needle hasn't budged much lately. After spending millions of dollars (on Microsoft's part at least), continuous, and often daily introductions of new features and free downloads designed to boost usage and consumer loyalty, no more than a few percentage points of market share have moved among the major engines, according to comScore Media Metrix. (See charts page 26). That's not to say that the "search wars" are at an unwin-nable stalemate. More than a year into Yahoo!'s entry into the market, and with Microsoft's MSN officially in the fray, the battle is likely to become more volatile.

The immediate winners are online consumers showered with freebies that didn't exist just a year ago e-mail with online storage, slick browser tools, desktop search, mobile search, a sophisticated photo organizer (Google's Picasa), and search services that are getting smarter and more comprehensive by the day.

More than anything else, the search wars have succeeded in helping advance the art and science of the entire sector. A Pew Internet and American Life survey last year found that 32 percent of online consumers confessed that they just couldn't live without their search engines. Like a Cold War arms race, the three major engines (Google, MSN, and Yahoo!), try to match one another feature for feature. None of the three want their arsenals to be missing the one tool that might prove indispensable.

Google may have 47 percent of all online searches, according to Nielsen//NetRatings, but 58 percent of those searchers also go to Yahoo! or MSN Search. As of February, Nielsen reports that Yahoo! has 21 percent of all online searches and MSN is responsible for 13 percent.

Yahoo! needs to close the 26 percent gap between it and Google. Notably, nearly 71 percent of those who searched at Yahoo! in January visited at least one of the other top two search engines, and 70 percent of those who searched at MSN also tried their luck at one or both of the other two, according to Nielsen.

Still, "It's no longer a Google world," says Chris Sherman, editor of SearchDay on SearchEngineWatch.com. "People will probably start gravitating away from using one search engine."

Search is competition at its finest, driven by product quality and assessed by consumers who tend to sample and dabble. "The change is among the search engines themselves and their competitiveness," Sherman observes. "They really are trying to outdo one another on a feature basis."

Online advertising can't live without search engines either. But there isn't much cause for complaining in a segment that continues to enjoy remarkable growth. Paid search ad spending rose 51.3 percent in 2004 and will increase another 22.5 percent in 2005 to $4.7 billion, or 41 percent of total ad spending, according to eMarketer. Still, "Google hasn't been dented," says Andrew Goodman, founder of Page Zero Media. "Without necessarily working at winning some of these battles, they have won hands down."

Butterfly Brigade

No one expects MSN Search, a latecomer, to penetrate the field substantially, at least in the near-term. "I think like everything else Microsoft is doing, it has the quality of an over-rated threat," Goodman says. Nevertheless, MSN's initial entry into the field is credible. "It's a three-player game," says Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch.com. "Microsoft is taking on both Google and Yahoo! as an incredibly strong player."

MSN Search may represent a different kind of long-term threat to Google and Yahoo! Since MSN will eventually no longer rely on Yahoo! search results (its contract with Yahoo! expires in June 2006), site optimizers can't depend on their site ranking high on two major portals for the price of one. "We already hear from those who are ranking worse," says David Berkowitz, director of marketing at icrossing. And ultimately, Yahoo! stands to lose ad reach and inventory when MSN replaces their keyword placements with its own. "Now you have to think about these three major players," says Sullivan.

MSN may also target a weak area for Google by selling into larger companies. MSN has raised eyebrows by asking advertisers for what search industry insiders say is a minimum $75,000 annual commitment in order to buy featured listings, which MSN sells itself. Google admits that it has had more success with mid-sized businesses than with large and small. MSN could be positioning itself as the network for big brands. "They have an advantage in the ability to sell the higher-end media buys," Page Zero's Goodman notes.

MSN in March lobbed another shot across the bow, introducing its adCenter platform, a service that puts Microsoft into the paid search business and will eventually support the delivery of ads across the entire MSN network. The service will enable advertisers to gather audience intelligence by geographic location, gender, age, time of day, and lifestyle.

With double-digit growth in search ad revenues projected for the foreseeable future, there would appear to be enough money to go around. "Anything that comes in to draw audience, serves more searches, and brings more supply to what seems like an insatiable demand on advertisers' part," says Larry Chase, publisher of Web Digest for Marketers.

MSN's entry into search only adds to the growing pressure Yahoo! and Google feel to improve customer service for advertisers and agencies. "There's a really strong sense that they're both trying to up their service levels a lot," icrossing's Berkowitz says. Media strategists complain that Google's algorithms befuddle optimizers and "Yahoo!'s interface continues to be unusable," Goodman contends. Both have tried to quickly match feature sets and buying options so that neither seems to have a clear service advantage. "Overall, there is some catch-up on both sides," Sullivan says.

Finding A Local Home

The Kelsey Group last year found that an astonishing 25 percent of searches by online consumers were for nearby resources. And yet there are very few, if any, local ads on the major engines. Goodman says local is still a couple of years away from flourishing, but he's expecting national franchises, business-to-business, and the real estate sectors to open the door.

Ultimately, the success of local still comes down to usage, and most people either don't know about local search on the major engines or their early experiences were poor. With the "Big Three" promoting local on their front pages, we may finally discover whether consumers think of the Web as a neighborhood resource too. The New Networks

Some analysts continue to see Google, Yahoo!, and MSN as the ABC, CBS, and NBC of search and the Web. The market is fragmented enough, however, to support smaller players like Ask Jeeves and Amazon's A9. Jeeves, in recent months, launched a brand campaign, in an attempt to differentiate itself. "They're [like] the Fox Network," Sullivan says of Jeeves. "They actually do search differently from the other players."

Meanwhile, the major players continue to release features without readily apparent revenue models  desktop, video, and mobile search  and in the case of Google, a fully-featured photo organizer.

"It looks like they are all throwing things up there to see what sticks," Berkowitz says. Many of Google's new tools could easily make sense of the Web and link to home media servers. The most significant long-term effect of the search wars may be that search is the paradigm for a fragmented media age  the tool consumers and businesses will need to access all media platforms. For the time being, however, the majors are fighting for consumer mindshare. In the following pages we evaluate Google, Yahoo!, MSN, and Ask Jeeves, rating each on usability, the quality of their search results, and other criteria.

Google: 4-Wheel Drive SUV

With fast and reliable results, a super clean interface, and a great suite of tools, Google earns its standing as the default search engine and a de facto standard. However, Google's advanced features are rather inaccessible and the preponderance of commercial listings in search results, towers of keyword ads, and occasional spam are beginning to tarnish the purity of the Google experience.

User Experience: Very Good

Google invented, and sticks with the pure search box experience because it's a consistent counterpoint to the cluttered portal look most users will encounter at competitive sites. Often overlooked are Google's superb design sense, elegant typefaces on results pages, and lightly cartoonish imagery that make it fun to use this serious technology.

Finally, Google has a stunning breadth to its search function with a reach into government sites, user groups, blogs, scholarly publications, and now printed books. Even its much-maligned Froogle shopping search engine has evolved into a model interface that delivers illustrated product listings and allows users to filter queries that anticipate how people typically shop.

Okay, but Google is still an insecure tech geek, afraid or unable to make its riches fully accessible. Users have to root around too much to unleash all this power, and most of us have gone years without knowing that we can do things like track UPS and FedEx packages by plugging the tracking number into the search box. (By the way, Yahoo! can do this too). At least we should be able to customize the vertical search options on the front page. "On the one hand I appreciate the simplicity, but I don't think they do enough to promote the specific features they offer," says Tara Calishain, editor of search watch site ResearchBuzz.com and author of "Google Hacks."

Search Results: Excellent

Reliability matters. Google delivers the best results from the broadest range of queries, and therein lies its lock on our desktops and loyalty. Google results are palpably intelligent; they include a range of content types on the first page, so you are more likely to find an example of what your broad initial query had in mind. For instance, in queries related to diseases and symptoms, results push forward the most authoritative and helpful information first. Google's ability to detect erroneous input and suggest more fruitful search phrasing has become eerily precise. On a granular level, Google's Web crawling roots out examples of precise and lengthy text strings exceptionally well. We also like that some results pages pull in sample images or link to the new in-book search that's starting to index printed material.

Still, we noticed Google results that strayed from marketers' optimizations. Product queries bring up too many big brand links and e-commerce sites rather than a mix of informational sites. Minor hotel listings can find their way to the top of a search for a location, for instance.

"There's more spam out there, and they need to get more resistant to people gaming the links," says SearchEngineWatch.com's Sullivan. On topical searches, we also noticed too many blog entries ranking high in results pages. (Google owns Blogger). And while Google fixes this stuff, it might follow Ask Jeeves' lead and deliver maps in location searches and handle natural language questions more effectively.

Tool Sets: Excellent

Google's browser-based desktop search is now eclipsed by MSN and Yahoo!'s more flexible, usable solutions. Nevertheless, the toolbar remains the standard for putting the most valuable browser tools up front. The brilliant, but under-exposed Deskbar application puts a search box in the Taskbar and pops up a preview window of results. Add to this the incredibly facile Picasa photo organizer, Blogger, and Gmail, and it is clear that Google is deftly executing its strategy for total Web domination.

Local Search: Good

Google Local is improving almost daily from meager beginnings. It is cleaner and simpler than Yahoo!, but the integration of mapping and listings is not as elegant and useful. The listings are less complete, peppered with more false hits, and too often dominated by national franchise listings. A far better implementation is in the Google Labs, which lets users run searches against gorgeous new maps that move and zoom fluidly. Users can get listings that pop up from map pinpoints.

Berkowitz, of icrossing, rightly notes that "Google's got the pieces it needs, but it has to figure out how to tie all the pieces together." With better listings and the new maps, Google Local will begin to challenge Yahoo!'s clear advantage here.

Mobile Search: Good

Mobile search is in the Neanderthal stage, but Google beats Yahoo! with elegant, browser-less short message service queries from your phone that actually deliver the goods. A short code followed by a search term offers definitions and short explanations that can settle many a bet. Add a ZIP code and get accurate shopping listings and even local movie times. The browser option based on wireless application is still awkward with a lot of bad hits; the impressive technology extracts only the relevant text from a landing page in the search result. Someday, though, this could make browser-based search from a phone doable.

Ad Relevance and Placement: Very Good

Google's keyword matching is exceptionally accurate, and the brand is resolved to keeping ads directly relevant to the search, despite pressure from media buyers to allow affinity marketing. Google is also more chaste than the competition when it comes to the prominence and number of sponsored results, even with broad keyword categories. While Google is piling the sideline ads up high now, with as many as eight such ads on many pages, it maintains an excellent balance of content to ads.

Video and Image Search: Good

The stunning number of image results on a Google search seems to make up for the higher incidence of false positives and near misses we get here than at Ask Jeeves and MSN, which give far fewer results but with fewer misses. Still, you are more likely to get what you want from this trove of options, though it does take some drilling through the dross. The Google Video beta is irrelevant for now, since it searches limited video archives derived from closed captioning data and generally does not call up the clips themselves.

OVERALL RESULT: Excellent

Yahoo!: The Family Minivan Sturdy Power Train

With "good-as-Google" results, strong local features, and deft forays into video, Yahoo! has successfully made its case as a reliable search engine. While its content can be an advantage at times, Yahoo! still struggles over how much of its branded portal to push on users without intruding on the pure search experience.

User Experience: Very Good

Yahoo!'s experience with user interfaces excels in its ability to anticipate what a searcher wants to do next. Yahoo! offers intelligent alternative search suggestions, a great option for turning a query into an RSS feed, and a personalized My Yahoo! Search page that enables users to save and share searches with one-button ease. Like Google, however, Yahoo! needs to make clearer that it has specialized search capabilities such as the ability to search for flight times and track packages.

Like MSN Search, Yahoo! Search competes with content on the front page, although over time the portal has improved its entry point so that the search box is more prominent and lets you switch into different vertical search modes (local, product, etc.) without a screen refresh.

Nevertheless, it feels like a more cluttered experience here and elsewhere, in part, because the brand pushes its own content at you throughout. "You search on Yahoo! and you have that [feeling of] heavier lifting," says SearchEngineWatch.com's Sullivan.

This can be a strength, too, since Yahoo!'s much denser, organized directory structure offers users a different search option that Google can't match. The portal is leveraging its own massive community of users. "Many properties get reviews from other people on movies, products, and dry cleaners," observes Searchwise's Sherman. At its best, Yahoo! can feel like Google powered by Amazon. At its most irritating, a Yahoo! search feels like the Web, co-starring Yahoo!

Search Results: Excellent

As far as we are concerned, it's a dead heat. Yahoo! is now at least as good as Google in most searches, and in many queries we tried, the first few pages of results were nearly identical on both engines. Yahoo! has the advantage of an integrated directory, so users can run their search against more organized site listings, but it does not enjoy Google's deep reach into usenet groups and blogs. Yahoo! seems to be less of an optimization target, however, so a query on place names, for instance, will bring up more informational hits than hotel pitches. Health queries rendered solid, authoritative links, after the top listing for Yahoo! Health, of course.

Results can be more idiosyncratic here, and we came up with more odd and barely-relevant listings. It was less adept than Google at handling natural language questions, although neither engine matches Jeeves in that regard. Yahoo! is very strong on corrections and suggesting alternative query phrasing, but it lacks Google's "Cache" and "Similar Pages" options, which are quite useful for advanced users.

As with all things Yahoo!, its tendency is to push its own content first, so on some pages the sponsored results and links to Yahoo! content leave room for only a few organic links above the scroll fold.

Tool Sets: Good

The Yahoo! tool box is smaller and less creative than Google's, to be sure. Nevertheless, Yahoo! Desktop Search is superior as a standalone application with great navigability and file viewers. It allows you to save searches, fully customize the indexing and search filters, and covers an impressive range of file types. The disappointing toolbar, however, lacks Web form filling mechanisms and search term highlighting, and spends too much time trying to log you in and push you back to Yahoo! content. More promising tools are in the lab, but hard to find. We especially like the Y!Q contextual search button that can search for related links off of any text you highlight anywhere on the desktop. This should be a toolbar feature.

Local Search: Good

Yahoo! is the leader in a segment that lags overall. In running many searches across multiple metro and suburban markets, we found the underlying directory comprehensive and trustworthy, although there remains a reliance on national franchises in some categories. Local ad support doesn't even approach the level of a print Yellow Pages, which would offer listings more substantial informational content and links.

The interactive map is not as slick and smooth as Google's upcoming maps, but Yahoo!'s also have interactive location pins that offer listing details. Best of all, Yahoo! will lay onto a map additional nearby resources (movies, bars, etc.) so you can plan an efficient outing and know what is nearby.

"They make it so easy," says icrossing's Berkowitz. "It is very well integrated." Yahoo!'s design experience shines in local, because the interface anticipates the next logical action, letting users filter on the first letter of a listing, its travel distance, and sub-categories. Finally, Yahoo! still has a city directory structure available, so users can browse listings of different types in an area much like a Yellow Pages. Local isn't quite there yet, but Yahoo! is closer than any of its competitors.

Mobile Search: Very Good

Yahoo!'s excellent "Send to phone feature" forwards any listing found in local listings or maps as a text message with a phone number as a link to your phone. While cool, it's not really mobile search. Yahoo! is relying more on a wireless application protocol-enabled browser approach to mobile search that takes some effort to access from the select phones and carriers that support it.

Wisely, Yahoo! Mobile keeps things modest by allowing users to key in simple search terms and access a local text listing or an image. The performance is very fast and the images are pretty stunning for the platform, although we're not sure why we want them on our phone. This works on select phones and services; Google's mobile search works pretty much on any device that can receive short message service.

Ad Relevance and Placement: Good

Yahoo!'s sideline keyword placements are not as numerous or relentless as Google's, and they were totally absent in more searches. Ad positioning, layout, and segregation are all fine and identical to Google's. Like MSN, however, Yahoo! is more intrusive with its sponsored site listings, having two or three crowded at the top and bottom of some results pages, and they can be large enough to crowd out organic listings above the fold.

Video and Image Search: Good

Image results are not as extensive as Google's, but the wide reach and indexing approach here also delivers a fair number of weird hits - leprosy images on a "whooping cough" search? Yahoo! lacks the valuable image size filter, but it makes up for it with excellent "Also Try" suggestions for more precise results.

While still rudimentary and rife with false hits, Yahoo! has the most evolved video search. Choices now available on the front page can deliver playable clips from a wide range of sources, but only on the simplest queries. By inviting Webizens to submit and tag their own video links for indexing, Yahoo! may end up with a lot of false tags, but it's a noble effort that suggests that the Web is well on its way to becoming a multimedia resource.

OVERALL RESULT: Very Good

MSN: Sporty Convertible Racing to Catch Up

 

This ambitious freshman entry shows a promising start. It has good ideas on usability and content served on a competent version 1.0 engine. MSN Search integrates content from Microsoft’s Encarta Encyclopedia and MSN Music to offer rich results in select areas. But we look forward to a 2.0 build with more consistent search results, a convincing local deployment, and better use of MSN’s own map and directory listings content.

 

User Experience: Very Good

 

MSN Search has the same portal problem as Yahoo! with most users encountering its search box at the MSN front door, amid content distractions on the home page. Only ambitious searchers will know to hit Search.msn.com for the cleaner, cooler interface. And it is cool. MSN doesn’t reinvent advanced search options, but brings them closer to the surface for consumers to use.

 

The drop-down options off the search button drill into a wider range of vertical searches, and the Search Builder tool pops up cool slider tools that let users adjust the search filter results ranking in a clear, clever way that invites their use. We love MSN’s slider gadgets. While some analysts argue that most searchers never access advanced tools, other engines never made them this easy to find.

 

“[Search Builder] solves the chicken and egg problem” says Searchwise’s Sherman. “People will be willing to try it.” MSN doesn’t forget geeks, either. An RSS subscription button at the bottom of every results page enables users to pull down a feed of frequently updated results from the same query.

 

However, a cool interface is marred by bugs. Responses can be sluggish with even moderately complex queries and image searches, and we experienced more unresponsive buttons and error pages than you would expect from a world-class engine. There is also portal confusion that makes some of the features hard to find and references to vertical searches for music and news hard to distinguish from MSN Music and Newsbot. MSN Search needs a more direct route to its well-designed standalone search box and a smoother performance overall.

 

Search Results: Good

 

For a young, built-from-scratch engine, MSN Search is a remarkably good first try, and much of the time can produce results similar to Google and Yahoo! on simple queries. It tends to cast a wider net in its rankings, so more obscure results pop into the first page, in part, because marketers haven’t yet optimized their pages for this engine. It tends to push more news items into the general results in order to make the case that MSN Search refreshes the index frequently. This can be good for some users, but ultimately, we think it undermines a valuable distinction growing in many people’s minds between the vertical categories of news and Web searches.

 

While not as strong as Asks Jeeves in answering natural language queries, MSN does leverage Encarta, offering “Direct Answers” to simple reference questions, and it can do math equations and measurement/currency conversions. Still, the engine got confused if questions weren’t in just the right syntax. The query “Where is Chad?” delivered a direct answer from Encarta on the African nation, but also produced a mixed bag of organic results on a young celebrity and consultants named “Chad.”

 

“Some inconsistencies are surprising,” Sherman notes. While SearchEngineWatch.com’s Sullivan complains that “there seems to be basic spam getting through” MSN Search. Some of our health- and symptom-related queries produced results featuring minor sites and vitamin e-tailers rather than the reliable health destinations we would expect. Overall, MSN Search produces competent results, but over time, we were more reluctant to rely on its idea of relevancy than any of the other major engines, including Jeeves.

 

Tool Sets: Good

 

Surprise, surprise: Microsoft knows how to build software, and this full suite of toolbar and desktop search tools bolts directly onto your browser, e-mail client (Outlook), and even basic Windows navigation — if you like that sort of thing.

 

Among the Google Toolbar clones, MSN’s is very good, focusing on in-browser tools like keyword highlighting and form filling and not merely pushing users back to the portal. The desktop search program may be the most powerful and versatile around, targeted at casual users who want to scour their hard drives from just about any spot in Windows. The desktop search program works fast and lets users parse results by content type. All of these functions and access to MSN Search itself fit into an unobtrusive, pop-up system bar.

 

Local Search: Fair

 

MSN gets credit for encouraging local search with the “Near Me” option adjacent to the search button. Unfortunately, the results don’t seem to be tied to a comprehensive local directory, even though the MSN portal does have a Yellow Pages. In every city we set as the default, MSN Search delivered a hodgepodge of results that mixed local businesses with irrelevant links. There is also no mapping tied to the local results despite the fact that the MSN portal itself offers maps. Local is MSN Search’s weakest suit for now.

 

Ad Relevance and Placement: Good

 

MSN Search actually boxes your results in with promotions; this is good for media buyers, but challenging to usability. The sideline keyword placements that come from Yahoo!’s Overture are clearly demarcated and not too text-heavy. The sponsored sites are segregated fairly in a shaded box with distinct type, but they take up a third of the screen above the fold on some pages. Worse, MSN repeats the box of ads at the bottom, taking up half of the results screen. The overall effect is that of a thickly-crusted search calzone – a thick ad crust surrounding the real meat.

 

Video and Image Search: Good

 

We love the options for filtering by image size and that the engine brings us quickly to the source. The 400 million image index generally does its job well and delivers scores of usable images, but it works better on people than on objects. The listing “DLP TVs,” for example, offered screens of consumer electronics makers’ logos rather than TV sets.

 

While it has no video search yet, MSN ties music-oriented queries into its MSN Music portal delivering direct links to song samples and CD purchase opportunities that include artists ranging from The Beatles to George Gershwin. This works well, except that the “Direct Answer” function pushes sales without providing real information about the artist – a bit of bait and switch for a search engine.

 

Mobile Search: Incomplete

 

While the MSN portal offers a diverse array of options for mobile content distribution, particularly for information and news alerts, there is no specific MSN Search mobile program yet.

 

OVERALL RESULT: Fair

Ask Jeeves: Import Sedan Options Not Included

Ask Jeeves, the perennial "Coming Back Kid," isn't as user-friendly as it could be and suffers from an ad glut. But its underlying search algorithms deliver a valuable, different experience for those who don't need to see everything.

User Experience: Very Good

Nothing fancy is the butler's serving style. Jeeves starts with a simple search box and a lot of illustrations, which lends it an appealing encyclopedic feel. Advanced search options are available, but like much of the site, they suffer scant explanation for novices. Jeeves has decent specialized search options like a spell check and "smart results," but here, too, they suffer from a lack of explanation and aren't located conveniently on the site. This is true also of the new MyJeeves personalized search page, which is not as well automated as Amazon's A9.

Search Results: Good

Results are Jeeves' core strength. They originate from its unique Teoma search engine that uses "subject-specific popularity" to rank sites according to the references it gets from others with similar subject matter. The algorithm locates centers of authority on various subjects and delivers substantive content. We noticed it works quite well, especially in searches for obscure information, trivia, and background on health topics; deeper, more valuable content appeared at the top of the results.

Jeeves understands natural language questions well most of the time. It gets kudos for the "related topics" links, which are quite accurate in linking to more refined topics on general search queries. Product searches returned adequate informational content, but there was a fair amount of drilling through sponsored listings and e-commerce links.

We did get more broken links and false paths from Jeeves than from the major engines, and the results usually carry too little text from the target site to be helpful. We like the inspired "site preview," which shows an image of the target page. Jeeves wisely delivers an image of the subject on the basic results page, which give it the feel of an encyclopedia. While the company is aiming for core searchers in a new marketing blitz, the site itself isn't compelling for hardcore searchers. You might send your kids to Jeeves for researching on homework projects, as it yields solid results with pictures.

Tool Sets: Good

Jeeves's limited tool chest includes an unremarkable copycat of Google's Toolbar. The desktop search utility neatly divides a PC's content by category and has some cool file viewers. Otherwise, the functionality and online help are too rudimentary to keep on all day.

Local Search: Fair

While it doesn't anticipate your needs and next moves as well as Yahoo!, Jeeves gives clean relatively comprehensive local listings via Citysearch. You can lock in your own locale for future searches, and listings show up on a somewhat sluggish map. Clicking into Citysearch for details intrudes on the experience, however, and it needs to be more tightly integrated with the Jeeves search brand. It's decent, but not compelling.

Ad Relevance and Placement: Good

Ugh! Everyone needs to make money, but the sponsored links Jeeves pulls in from Google often fill the results page above the screen fold. Worse, the links are demarcated from organic listings by a microscopic tag rather than the customary shading. The ads are relevant, but too insistent. Video and Image: Good

There is no video search for now, but the image results are relevant to the search terms and sized well for easy viewing.

Mobile Search: Incomplete

There is no mobile deployment.

Overall Result: Fair

Concept Engines: Filling the Hybrid Niche

Few search engines seem to creep onto our radar every day, but there are few we re-visit regularly. A9, Clusty, and Blinkx are playing with search concepts that we're betting will show up in the mainstream someday. A9.com

A9

Amazon-owned, this service combines Google searches, GuruNet reference, "Search Inside the Book," and Yellow Pages for an astonishing lab of next-generation ideas. A9 tracks recent searches and arranges results, bookmarks, notes on sites, and images. It gives us the idea of what a personalized search tool might be. This "semantic" approach to search is promising because it puts results from different data categories on one page at once, and you can move laterally and even see new connections among them. The "Block View" feature delivers photos of actual storefronts and neighboring businesses. A9 is going in so many different directions, it's hard to know where it's headed. This shows in the interface, which can be very unwieldy to use.

Clusty.com

By "clustering" results around sub-topics, Clusty parses a query of "books," for instance, into folders of links to "Reviews," "Shopping," and "Ebooks." It brings to the surface relevant results that might be pages deep in even the best Google or Yahoo! searches. You can also organize image results by picture size. The Vivisimo-owned company has deals with eBay, BizRate, and Slashdot and also indexes blogs and Wikipedia. As a result, Clusty works very well on product, celebrity, and reference searches. Best of all, the personalization routines and interface are adding new twists to search without confusing the user. Clusty offers clustering without cluttering and is a good example of search that is less about comprehensive Web crawling and more about usable content.

While it's unlikely to attract a massive audience on its own, and is a bit sluggish, Clusty technology seems poised for licensing or a buy-out.

Blinkx

This is where the line between online and offline, between work and search, officially gets blurred Blinkx literally bolts search into your workflow. Blinkx actually anticipates what you might want to search for by monitoring the content of your workspace in the background, and delivering relevant links both to your own stored data and various categories of Web content. You don't even need to open a browser to access the content from the ever-present toolbar.

Rank and File: Our process

Search is a major philosophical issue. For the über-nerd programmers who devise search algorithms, defining what is "relevant" to a query and then determining how best to extract that material from billions of Web pages remains an open question. Google, Yahoo!, Ask Jeeves, and MSN answer this in slightly different ways, and so declaring a "best" search result in all instances is iffy at best.

In the absence of any "objective" measure of search quality, we combined three subjective measures to rate the four biggest search brands for common, not expert, use. We excluded America Online because it uses Google as its main engine. We reviewed each engine with a common suite of more than 100 basic queries representing the most popular categories of search  people, places, things. In order to tease out some of the most commonly consulted types of Web content and search engine features, we included health topics, disease symptoms, breaking news topics, consumer products, celebrities, musicians, natural language questions, and exact searches of multiword text strings.

For local, mapping, and mobile features, we experimented with services and store types in a mix of five suburban and urban ZIP codes. We conducted countless searches and multi-word refinements to run on the four engines as interesting new queries popped up on each of them.

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