Search Engine Shoot-Out

Search Engine shoot-out.
Illustration: Steven Lyons
Not many brands become verbs, as in "I googled [fill in the blank] last night." Nielsen/NetRatings' January 2007 report found that more than half of all Web queries in the United States in that month went through Google. The second-most-popular engine, Yahoo Search, garnered less than half that amount.

Which led us to wonder: Does Google deserve all that traffic, or is it living off its reputation? Are people using it because they're not aware of other, potentially better search engines? To find out, we pitted Google against its big-name competitors, Yahoo and Microsoft Live Search, as well as against smaller challengers such as AlltheWeb, AltaVista, and Ask.com--plus a couple dozen of the specialty search services, including Blogdigger, Picsearch, and TubeSurf.

Our verdict? Google is indeed the best search engine, even though two other services topped it--barely--in our text-search tests. Google's index proved to be the most accurate, comprehensive, and timely of the bunch. It also bested the majority of the specialty-search sites we tried, meaning those that focus on a category or file type, such as videos, images, news, blogs, or local info delivered on a mobile phone.

Recent enhancements to Live Search's mobile component moved that service into the lead in our test searches for local information, although you have to navigate manually to its mobile-optimized site rather than being redirected automatically when you log in from a cell phone or other handheld device (see our charts throughout this story for details).

That said, the competition is fierce--and Google had better stay on its toes. Its challengers are implementing some innovative tools and interface upgrades (Ask.com is particularly impressive in this area) that enhance the user experience and deliver more relevant information than do the standard ten blue links on a results page. We also like several useful tools that can help you go beyond the basics of search.

Chart: Text-Search Blanket Finish

In our tests, variation among the top four general Web search engines was minor, with Microsoft's Live Search coming in a distant fifth; Ask.com finished two points behind Live Search and ranked in sixth place. Click the icon below to see how the tested engines performed, including their scores in each round.

Text-Search Blanket Finish
In our tests, variation among the top four general Web search engines was minor, with Microsoft's Live Search coming in a distant fifth; Ask.com finished two points behind Live Search and ranked in sixth place.
Service First round Second round Third round Average Comments
AlltheWeb 10 of 10 24 24 24 This Yahoo-owned site blends its parent's powerful search index with a homely but easy-to-use interface.
AltaVista 10 of 10 22 23 23 Another Yahoo property that's a top-notch text-searcher. The spartan interface is more aesthetically appealing than AlltheWeb's.
Google Search 9 of 10 21 20 21 The goliath of Web search, Google still manages to be comprehensive, timely, and a breeze to use.
Yahoo Search 9 of 10 20 21 21 Great engine, but Yahoo's overwrought home page is the Vegas Strip of search sites. (The Yahoo engine also powers AlltheWeb and AltaVista.)
Microsoft Live Search 8 of 10 16 16 16 A notch below Google and Yahoo, yet a solid engine. But it isn't well integrated with other Live services the way Google and Yahoo services mesh.
Ask.com 5 of 10 14 - 14 A decent showing, but some results weren't as timely or as accurate as those from competing sites. Its experimental Act X interface shows promise.
LookSmart 5 of 10 - - - -
Gigablast 2 of 10 - - - -
Open Directory Project 1 of 10 - - - -
Wikipedia 1 of 10 - - - -
Chart note: The average score is composed of scores from three rounds of testing. In the first round we posed ten queries, awarding one point if a link to the target response--or the response itself--was included in the first page of results. In the second and third rounds, we awarded three points when the target response was available from the first result (or above it, in several cases), two points if the target was in the second or third result, and one point if the response was listed elsewhere on the first page of results.

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