Friday, November 5, 2010

Is There An Alternative to Google?

For all intents and purposes, Google has won the great Search Engine War. The chaotic nineties, in which Yahoo waged war on the now irrelevant Hotbot and Altavista, have given way to the current Pax Googalia, in which the Internet juggernaut controls an impressive 65 percent of all searches in the United States. Recent upstart Bing has made some inroads, grabbing nearly 10 percent of the search market, but this was backed by the full might of Microsoft and an increasingly annoying 300 million dollar ad campaign. 

It's easy to see why Google is so popular. Its simplicity is elegant, its ads are unintrusive, its reach across the Internet nearly complete. However, a few cracks have appeared in the search engine titan in the past ten years. The practice of Google Bombing has meant that certain individuals have discovered interesting ways to skew Google search results. The most famous one appeared in the middle of last decade, when a coalition of bloggers made George W. Bush appear as the first result for the search "miserable failure." Recently, the appropriation of Rick Santorum's last name by gay rights advocates has made pundits wonder if its possible for him to run for president.

But there have also been far more sinister waves of corporate Google bombing. How often have you done a search only to find results from empty web sites with no content, merely hoping to collect ad revenue? Or the unreliable auspices of (a cut-and-paste from Wikipedia) or eHow, recently declared to be a scam, filled with writers who don't know what they're talking about. 

While Bing goes for the populist approach, promising better, cleaner results, there have also been a recent crop of nerdy, technical search engines. These Google competitors have shed the search engine's simplicity in favor of increasing technical functionality and specificity. Sounds great, but do these things have a chance of catching on to the general public? 

Wolfram Alpha unveiled itself last year as a "computational search engine." Rather than doing what most search engines do - leading you to websites that have the knowledge you seek - Wolfram Alpha hopes to give you that knowledge directly. It's a search engine meets almanac, crossed with Wikipedia, offering loads of statistics and factoids for anything you might search for. For example, a search for my name, Christopher Holden, gives me all sorts of fun facts, including a graph tracking the popularity of the name "Christopher" compared to the name "Holden."

Wolfram Alpha's chief asset is its computational ability, allowing it to pull of complex mathematical equations, economic formulas and the like. It's great when you want to find graphs tracing the average crime rate of Los Angeles compared to New York. But as a competitor to Google, it's range is too narrow. It's a fun search engine to mess around on, but not very practical for the everyday searches that I do. 

The newest competitor, Blekko, is slightly more Googlesque while still promising something new. Let's get this out of the way quickly: "Blekko" is an awful name for a search engine. But Blekko hopes to be more "pure" than Google, by promising real results instead of the names of corporations who have gamed the systems to keep their websites on the front page. 

Blekko's main draw is what it calls a "slash tag," allowing you to search for subjects from a specific viewpoint. Looking for a conservative's take on global warming? Search "global warming /conservative". Looking for information on your history paper on the Wild West? Search "cowboys /history" to avoid getting results for the sports team. 

These slash tags are created Wikipedia style, with kind volunteers doing Blekko's work for them, marking specific websites as adhering to specific ideologies. Supposedly, it makes the search process more transparent. The full list of slashtags can be found here, and using these allows users to narrow their searches toward specific things. Additionally, Blekko "automatically" adds some slashtags to specific searches; compare the Google search "cure for headaches" (in which the top result is a wikihow site about the "ancient healing art" of aromatherapy) to Blekko (which automatically adds the "/health" slashtag to your search, and fields slightly more reputable sources as the top results).

Google Search Results for "cure for headaches"

Blekko search results for "cure for headaches"
But while Blekko is a refreshing change from Google in some respects, it seems doubtful that it can be a complete success. The whole "slashtag" concept, though interesting, seems a bit too complicated and technical for your average searcher. Sure, you could search for Sarah Palin's twitter account by searching "Sarah Palin /twitter", or you could type "Sarah Palin Twitter" into Google and get pretty much the same thing. Blekko offers your hardcore Internet freaks a chance to finetune their searches, but the average American probably won't care. 

Additionally, the problem with both Blekko and Wolfram Alpha is that they're slow. Granted, we've been spoiled by Google's instantaneous search times, but while researching this post I grew impatient waiting for both Google competitors to load my results. I can't see many people wanting to jump ship to a slower search engine, however precise its results might be.

The issue is that Google is already good enough for most people. Wolfram Alpha and Blekko both seem to be created by nerds for nerds, without your average searcher in mind. Is my grandfather going to use Blekko slashtags while searching for a bridge column? Of course not! The unwieldy term "Blekko slashtag" just sounds ridiculous to begin with, and the process of using them, though far from convoluted, is still too different from Google's chic simplicity to make the search comfortable. 

Google has a few minor issues, but nothing is major enough to indicate that a migration en masse to a new search engine is necessary. Instead, Wolfram Alpha and Blekko are going to be stuck on the periphery of the Internet, possibly gaining a cult following without any real widespread success. 

I concluded my research by searching for my current city of residence, Tallahassee, in three different search engines. Google gave me an integrated mix of maps, pictures, and articles. The website of the city government topped the list. Wolfram Alpha provided a crop of interesting but insignificant statistics (we're the 136th largest city in the nation!). Blekko, interestingly enough, provided the city newspaper as the first listing. The city government's official site was not even featured on the front page. 

In the end, Google gave me the best mix of useful information. Wolfram Alpha was too encyclopediac, Blekko too arbitrary in its listings. So for now, I'm sticking with number one. Someday, another search engine might manage to convince me to join their side. But it won't be any of those on the market today.