Search Engine Shoot-Out

Smart Interface Tricks

The best search-result pages provide links to related items, even if the pages don't include your exact query (a great Beatles photo when you query "John Lennon", for example). It also helps if they know a little about you: If your IP address indicates that you live in the United States and you query "civil war", you're probably interested in the American Civil War and are looking for a war timeline, maps of the conflict, or maybe even biographies of Generals William T. Sherman and Robert E. Lee.

You'll find links to recent news stories related to your query at the top of your search results when you use Ask.com.
You'll find links to recent news stories related to your query at the top of your search results when you use Ask.com.
Ask.com does the best job of displaying related information and links. If you search for "WWII" (World War II), the service's Narrow Your Search column to the right of the results helps fine-tune your query with such links as 'History of WWII', 'Cause of WWII', and so on. Yahoo and Live Search provide similar tools, but they're neither as easy to use nor as comprehensive as Ask.com's.

Other sites are improving the user experience in different ways. For instance, Live Search has a "Smart Scroll" feature for image results. As you scroll down a collection of image thumbnails, the page reloads itself, adding thumbnails on the fly. Since there's no pagination, you don't have to click a link to load more images. In addition, Live Search's Scratchpad is a handy visual-bookmarking tool; you can drag images from the results page and drop them in the Scratchpad column on the right. When you're scrolling through dozens or even hundreds of images, the Scratchpad makes it easier to track shots you want for a report or presentation.

Not every interface trick works, even if it seems clever at first. Ask.com's Binoculars feature, for example, allows you to preview certain site results in a pop-up window by holding your pointer over results that have a binoculars icon associated with them. But for text-page previews, the large thumbnails don't provide enough detail to help you determine the page's content.

Chart: Find the Perfect Pics

Image-search specialists such as Picsearch couldn't best the accuracy and clear interface of Google's top-scoring image-search component. Click the icon below to see how the tested engines performed, including their scores in each round.

Find the Perfect Pics
Image-search specialists such as Picsearch couldn't best the accuracy and clear interface of Google's top-scoring image-search component.
Service First round Second round Third round Average Comments
Google Image Search 26 24 20 23 Great attention to detail. Below each thumbnail is the image size in pixels, the file size, and the domain where the image is located.
Ask Images 23 20 19 21 Returned very accurate image results, and it has a well-designed search results page. This is a worthy alternative to Google.
Lycos Image Search (Ask) 23 19 19 20 This service uses the Ask.com image index. It is about as accurate as Ask.com, but we prefer the latter's less-cluttered look.
Live Search Images 19 18 19 19 Clever interface, particularly the "Smart Scroll" feature that autoloads new images on the search-results page (no click to the next page).
Picsearch 18 18 18 18 Comprehensive and quick, Picsearch proves that a little engine can compete with the big players.
Ixquick Metasearch 18 17 17 17 A metasearch engine that's easy to use. Good performance, but a notch below the top performers.
AltaVista (Yahoo) 18 13 13 15 A decent showing for Yahoo's sister site. We liked the simple interface, but accuracy could be better.
Yahoo 17 14 14 15 Given Yahoo's impressive text-search scores, we expected a better showing here.
Corbis 18 5 - - -
Ditto.com (Picsearch) 17 - - - -
Pixsy 14 - - - -
Flickr 11 - - - -
TimePix (Getty Images) 7 - - - -
American Memory (historical) 6 - - - -
Tiltomo (Flickr) 5 - - - -
FreeFoto.com 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. (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.
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