Search Engine Shoot-Out

Google's Secret Sauce

So how does Google maintain its edge over rivals? A comprehensive index is key, as is a fanatical devotion to excellence. "We live and breathe search. There are guys who'll come in over the weekend. They'll say, 'I was doing a query on this strange thing and I wanted Google to return this page.' And then people will spend a few hours figuring out how to tune our algorithm to return more relevant results," says Google's Matt Cutts.

Fair enough, but other sites certainly have their own search fanatics. So what else? Timeliness is crucial. Cutts says, "If we don't have an important document or breaking news within a day or two after it happens, we need to do better. It used to be that search engines would update once a month, and we've led the charge in trying to return and refresh little bits of our index every day." Within a week or two, Google has refreshed its Web index.

Many of the smaller search engines license their indices from larger players and then massage the results with their own home-brewed algorithms, or via human indexing, a technique pioneered by Ask.com but now used by several search services. The Yahoo-owned AlltheWeb and AltaVista, for instance, each use their parent company's index, while Lycos hooks into Ask.com, and AOL Search is really Google in disguise.

Why use a smaller site if it's simply mirroring another engine's results? For one thing, you might like its interface better. Google's iconic, simpler-is-better approach is the industry standard-bearer: just a search box, a fanciful graphical treatment of the brand, plenty of white space, and no ads on the home page. Both Ask.com and Live Search mimic Google's minimalist motif, although the former spices things up a bit by adding a handy Search Tools column on the right side of the screen, giving you easy access to useful search helpers that you might otherwise miss, such as the service's encyclopedia, dictionary, and maps.

AlltheWeb's home page is unadorned as well (some might call it homely), consisting mostly of a query box and a few tabs for accessing specialty-search sections (news, pictures, and so on). On the other hand, its parent site is the Times Square of Search: Yahoo's home page is so jam-packed with news headlines, ads, and links to other features that the search box at the top of the screen is easy to overlook entirely. Meanwhile, if you enter a query in AOL's search field, you'll get much the same results as you would by doing the same search at Google.

Specialty engines vary in their presentation. This is illustrated by our two favorite blog-search sites, Blogdigger and Bloglines. Blogdigger adheres to Google's less-is-more rule, while Bloglines uses its home page to pitch its RSS newsreader and blog-publishing tools.

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