Search Engine Shoot-Out

What's New in Search

It's hard for many Internet users to remember the pre-Google Web, but there was a time when AltaVista ruled search, and before AltaVista, Magellan was the search service of choice. The history of the Web shows that people will switch to another engine in a heartbeat if it produces more accurate hits on their queries and is easy to use. So search vendors realize they need to be on top of their game. "The amount of competition that's out there right now is benefiting the consumer," says Microsoft Live Search senior product manager Justin Osmer. "We're all trying to come up with the next great thing--the Cool New Thing--so you're seeing a lot of innovation in search."

Much of that innovation centers on how the services display results. Few people use their favorite engine's news, image, and other specialty search tools, even if doing so would mean more accurate results. The trick for vendors, therefore, is to make their search algorithms smarter, giving them the ability to anticipate what the searcher really wants.

Search engines anticipate when you may be looking for images, and display them along with standard results.
Search engines anticipate when you may be looking for images, and display them along with standard results.
If you enter "daffodil" in the Google search box, for example, the results page will display a few photos of daffodils above the Web hits. "What users really want is a picture of those things," says Google software engineer Matt Cutts.

When we tried out the same query in Ask.com, Microsoft Live Search, and Yahoo, none of them displayed an image of the flower in their results. To be fair, we did a similar search using "Eiffel Tower"; this time, Google, Ask.com, and Yahoo displayed at least one photo of the Parisian landmark, but Live Search did not. (Live Search did provide us access to images of the Parisian landmark through a handy 'Eiffel Tower Photos' link in the Related Searches column, though.)

The integration of news stories with Web-search results is a work in progress, with Ask.com leading the way. For instance, when we searched for "titan" and "flash memory" (two separate queries), only Ask.com posted the latest headlines on related topics, including a link to a story on Saturn's moon Titan, and another to a piece on Intel's new flash memory storage--in both cases providing the information we were searching for.

When it comes to movie-related queries, both Google and Yahoo appear to have a slight edge. We searched for "300," looking for information about the Warner Brothers film, which was in theatrical release at the time of our testing. The very first match returned by both Google and Yahoo provided links to the movie's theatrical trailer and reviews, as well as a search box for entering a city or zip code to find local show times.

Microsoft Live Search, in contrast, was incorrect when it attempted to guess our location based on the IP address of the DSL account we used for testing (it was 74 miles off), and it listed movie theaters for Irvine, California, a good 90-minute car trip in Southern California traffic. Ask.com inquired if we meant "300, the movie"; we entered a zip code, clicked the supplied movie link, and received the expected trailer, reviews, and show-time links.

Chart: TV Guides of the Internet

The search services that specialize in finding Web videos weren't able to keep pace with Google's video index. Click the icon below to see how the tested engines performed, including their scores in each round.

TV Guides of the Internet
The search services that specialize in finding Web videos weren't able to keep pace with Google's video index.
Service First round Second round Third round Average Comments
Google Video 21 21 18 20 The most reliable video-search engine we tested. Its results page provides clip thumbnails and the source URL without looking cluttered.
AOL Video Search 19 18 18 18 Surprise! AOL's Truveo media-search engine is comprehensive and timely. The results provide fast access to top video categories too.
TubeSurf 19 22 13 18 Metasearch tool scans multiple video-search engines. Very accurate, but lacks thumbnail images and a preview window.
YouTube (Google) 18 18 15 17 If a video's online, you'll probably find it in this inexhaustible video catalog. YouTube's Google-like results page is easy to browse, too.
Blinkx 16 17 18 17 Solid search tool with a few annoying interface quirks. Example: The search-results page doesn't show the length of video clips.
Yahoo Video 15 13 14 14 Well-designed interface and a respectable clip-finder, although we expected better results from the search giant.
Pixsy 14 - - - -
Search for Video 14 - - - -
PureVideo 13 - - - -
ClipRoller 13 - - - -
AltaVista Video Search (Yahoo) 7 - - - -
Brightcove 3 - - - -
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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