Search Engine Shoot-Out

Undisputed Champ?

If you use Google and are happy with it, you have no reason to switch engines. Simply put, Google is an excellent search tool. It scored at or near the top in every search category we tested, including the standard search for text information, as well as our searches for videos, images, news, blog postings, and local info. While other services performed as well or slightly better in specific areas, only Google aced virtually every test we threw at it.

Our initial round of testing included dozens of general-purpose and specialty search sites; the final two rounds focused on the top engines in each of our six categories from the initial round. See our complete test questions and results.

This isn't to say that the search sites that did poorly in our tests don't have noteworthy features. Ask.com deserves praise for its usability and its image searches, although in our text-query tests it was just so-so. Yahoo fared well in most categories, including text-info and local search, but it was a middling performer in image and video queries.

In addition to the big dogs, dozens of specialty Web sites are devoted to searching for images, news, blogs, and other specific items. For some queries, these boutique engines are a good choice. Superpages.com and WhitePages.com, for instance, excel at people searches. And TubeSurf, a metasearch engine that simultaneously scans Google, MySpace, Yahoo, and YouTube for videos, is a quick way to query multiple sites. In many categories, however, including video, image, and news search, the big engines were just as good as--and often better than--the little guys.

Maybe you've heard that search engines all spit out the same list of hits. There's some truth to this claim: For instance, when you query news-search sites about a major, breaking story, you can expect very similar results. But in our tests, the items returned varied considerably from engine to engine, particularly with image, video, and blog queries. Take images, for example. Our query for Mardi Gras photographs often produced a motley mix of hits, everything from amateur close-ups of bleary-eyed revelers--who, frankly, could have been partying anywhere--to professional-caliber shots of the Mardi Gras parade. And a search for the more-obscure "windform" produced a grab bag of thumbnails, from patio decorations to wood sculptures. (We were actually looking for an image of a musical instrument called a windform, which is a horn that measures about 20 feet long.)

Blog-search results were equally unpredictable. In one test we queried "Huffington Libby" (without typing the quotation marks), our target match being an article from The Huffington Post blog on the trial verdict for former White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby--breaking news at the time. At several of the blog-search sites, such as IceRocket, Sphere, and Technorati, the results didn't include links to the target story, but rather pointed to articles on other blogs that mentioned The Huffington Post's Libby piece. The lesson here is that some specialty sites are worth the detour, while others are not. For the record, Google topped our blog-search tests, followed by the specialists Sphere and Blogdigger.

Our scoring awarded a search engine three points if the first link in the results led to the target answer or site (or if the answer itself appeared at the top of the results page or within the first result). A link to the correct answer as the second or third result was worth two points, and a link to the correct response elsewhere in the top ten results scored one point. (For image search engines, which typically include more than ten thumbnails per page, we awarded a point if the target photo appeared on the first page.) If the target answer or item didn't appear anywhere on the first page, we awarded no points to the search engine.

With some queries, we were seeking a particular news story or blog article. We deemed other answers accurate as long as they had the requested information--for example, multiple sites contain a photo of Rutherford B. Hayes, the nineteenth president of the United States.

Some tests forced us to make judgment calls. A mobile search site that required us to enter an exact street address (for example, "123 Main Street, Oak Park, California") as the starting point for driving directions didn't score as well as one that needed only a city and state.

Chart: Scan the Blogosphere

Among the blog-search specialists, only Sphere challenged Google for timely, accurate results. Click the icon below to see how the tested engines performed, including their scores in each round.

Scan the Blogosphere
Among the blog-search specialists, only Sphere challenged Google for timely, accurate results.
Service First round Second round Third round Average Comments
Google Blog Search 18 16 20 18 This service was more up-to-date than the blog-search specialists. Results pages show the time of blog posts (e.g., "12 hours ago"), too.
Sphere 15 13 20 16 Timely and well designed, this site's top-of-screen links make it easy to narrow your search to, say, the last 24 hours or seven days.
Blogdigger 14 9 16 13 Blogdigger has an easy-to-use interface, but the service sometimes couldn't find same-day blog posts in our tests.
Bloglines (Ask) 11 10 13 11 This site offers news feeds and blogging tools, but its search feature seems like an afterthought, with a window tucked in the right corner.
IceRocket 12 8 11 10 We like IceRocket's search results page, which displays blog titles, article summaries, and post times in an easy-to-read fashion.
Best of Blogs 10 - - - -
Feedster 10 - - - -
Technorati 10 - - - -
Hubdog 0 - - - -
Chart note: The average score is composed of scores from three rounds of testing. Our scoring awarded a search engine three points if the first link in the results led to the target answer or site (or if the answer itself appeared at the top of the results page or within the first result). A link to the correct answer as the second or third result was worth two points, and a link to the correct response elsewhere in the top ten results scored one point. If the target answer or item didn't appear anywhere on the first page, we awarded no points to the search engine.
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