Do Alternative Search Engines Measure Up?

Q: What's the quickest way to find the molecular structure of gold?

A: Just Google it.

When the name of a product becomes a verb in the common vernacular, you know the owners have a hit on their hands. Just ask Xerox or the makers of Scotch Tape, right? In the case of Google, though, is it always the best place to start searching?

We know there are alternatives out there: Yahoo, Ask.com, MSN. In so many ways, however, these alternatives feel about the same. Sure, the results will vary slightly, but the search experience really isn't markedly different.

But there are products out there that do offer a very different search experience. I Googled ... ahem, I scoured the Web to find a handful of search engines that really do have a different feel to them.

Mahalo -- They're here to help.

Mahalo attempts a seemingly insurmountable task: human-powered search results. To accomplish this, Mahalo (the name means "thank you" in Hawaiian) employs "Guides" to handcraft results for the most popular search terms. The site is in alpha now and has about 4,000 terms prepared but hopes to get to 10,000 by the end of the year, when it'll go into beta. If you search on a term that Mahalo hasn't created a results page for, you'll get standard Google results.

When you do get a Mahalo page, it's a very nice experience. The results are categorized into "Top 7" links and "Recent News" (for all results), and then relevant categories such as "Background and Profiles" for people or "Information and Reviews" for a product. You might find an embedded YouTube video on the page. In the sidebar is a "Fast Facts" section, "Guide Notes" and a "Top Submitted Links" section, which brings us to the next point.

Even the most diligent Guide may miss something, and Mahalo lets you suggest links that should be included. These will be reviewed by a Guide for possible inclusion in the main page, or for listing in the Top Submitted Links section (Mahalo estimates that 60% to 70% of its links come from Guides, and the rest are user-submitted). Some suggestions will be refused, and by clicking through to the Submitted Links page, you can see what has been rejected and why. It's a nice "full disclosure" touch.

Mahalo is an excellent alternative to Google if your search is pretty simple -- searching for a person, place or thing, basically. If you're looking for an explanation of the molecular structure of gold, Mahalo isn't going to be of much help. If you want to know what foolishness Paris Hilton has been up to, or the lowdown on Apple's iPhone, then Mahalo is a great place to start.

Clusty -- A tool for serious searchers

Clusty is a "metasearch" engine by Vivisimo that uses an algorithm to cluster (ergo the name) content based on textual similarity. Enter a search term in Clusty's sparse front page and you'll get results from a variety of sources, depending on which "tab" you're on. The Web tab features results from Ask.com, MSN, Gigablast, the Open Directory Project and WiseNut, while the News tab features results from The New York Times, The Associated Press and Reuters.

Other tabs use other sources; a click on the "details" link at the top of any search results page will let you know exactly where results are coming from. What's more, you can customize (to a certain extent) which sources you want to see results from. Obviously, you can't add a source that Clusty doesn't normally harvest results from.

Metasearch engines are fairly common. What makes Clusty stand out is how it groups and presents its results. For example, say you've just entered the phrase "Paris Hilton goes to jail." A sidebar offers three tabs: "Clusters," "Sources" and "Sites." These let you filter results accordingly. "Sources" is pretty straightforward; it lets you filter the search results from a particular search engine. "Sites" let's you drill down into the results based on the site the result comes from. At the top level, Clusty's "Sites" tab has a granularity that most won't care about: com, org, net and so on. Drill one level deeper to get more meaningful information (Usmagazine.com, People.com, Eonline.com). It'd be nice to have the option of skipping the top level. For some users, whether a site is in the .gov or .edu top-level domain is important, but most just won't care.

That leaves the Cluster tab, which is Clusty's big draw. The program's use of heuristics to augment its clustering algorithm helps guide you to the kinds of results you're looking for. For our example search, the top two clusters (at the time of this writing) are "45 days in jail" and "jail sentence." These aren't strongly differentiated, but we can drill down further. Opening "45 days in jail" reveals subclusters, the first two of which are "Hilton sentenced to 45 days in jail" and "drunk." As you might expect, the first subcluster contains news articles about the topic, while the second has links to more informal sites such as end-user blogs. It should be noted that the same result might end up in more than one cluster.

Clusty offers a lot of nice extra features, like an AJAX-y preview of the page a result links to, and "shortcuts" for things like weather (search on a place, and you'll get a quick weather report at the top of the results list). That said, no matter how slick the interface, it's the quality of the search results that matters. If you're not using the clustering feature here, the results can be somewhat puzzling. The very first result in our Paris Hilton search was to a page titled "GOP Candidates Debate Evolution, Rupert Murdoch and Wall Street" and the second to a "Jail Paris Hilton" petition." A few clicks on the clusters quickly gets you to the kinds of results you're looking for, whether you're looking for news items or gossip.

As a second test, I searched on "thermal tear shuttle." The first result?: "Oh Mons! The First Ascent of Olympus Mons," a fictional account of climbing Olympus Mons in 2026. At the same time, the biggest cluster was "Atlantis," and opening that quickly got the expected results about the space shuttle Atlantis (the search being done the day Atlantis had lifted off and a tear was spotted in its thermal shielding).

Another cluster was called "printer" (containing links to supplies for thermal printers), and it would've been nice to be able to easily filter those results out, but as of now Clusty doesn't offer that functionality. My conclusion is that if you're going to use Clusty for complex searches effectively, you need to use its clustering features to quickly isolate the content you're really looking for. If you're a "casual" searcher who is just going to pay attention to the main results page, you may as well stick with Google. When you need to do hard-core searching, though, Clusty is well worth a look.

Kartoo -- Flash-based mapping search

Kartoo is another metasearch engine, this one based on mapping results. You've got two choices about how to use Kartoo: a Flash-based interface and standard HTML. The Flash site is initially interesting but ultimately frustrating to use.

After entering your search phrase, you'll be presented with a "map" of a handful of icons linking to terms floating in between. Each icon represents a search result. On the left is a list of phrases; clicking one of these adds it to your search phrase, refining the results (it literally adds "phrase you clicked" to the search term and refreshes the results based on the newly revised term). Clicking on one of the floating terms does the same thing. Rolling over an icon replaces the list of topics with a thumbnail of the site represented by that icon along with a textual summary.

A series of options appears at lower left when you're hovering over an icon or term, but most of them are either nonfunctional or nonintuitive to the point that I haven't been able to ascertain what they do. In fact, the whole UI is full of obscure widgets that change and seem to be signifying something, but even reading the help files offers no hints. In general, the Flash-based Kartoo seems like more of an Internet toy than a search tool, and the idea of having to read a help page just to use a search tool's basic functions seems wrong.

The HTML version is a different matter entirely. Here I get a very clean list of results in the main frame of the page, with, again, a list of topics/phrases in the left sidebar. Each of these topics has a plus and minus sign next to it; use these to add or subtract that term from your search phrase. The results themselves list the sources, and it seems as though weight is given to results that are reported by more than one source.

Results were quite good for both of our test queries. I didn't get a bunch of random blog posts near the top of the results when searching about Ms. Hilton, nor did I get links to printer supplies while checking out the shuttle's thermal blanket. That said, it's hard to argue that the results were better than you could obtain via Google, and much of the adding and subtracting of phrases could be done in most search engines via a bit of typing. Still, the HTML version is point-and-click-friendly and worth checking out.

KoolTorch -- Revolutionizing the face of search

The folks at KoolTorch looked out over the search engine landscape and saw that most of the work being done concerned the inner workings of search: algorithms, optimizations, spidering and so forth. They saw a need to work on the "face" of search. Their solution is quite unique.

Using the default graphical UI, you'll initially be surprised to find that there's very little text when you first do a search. Instead, you'll see what KoolTorch calls a "taxonomy overlay." Results are grouped into categories based on common traits, with each category being displayed as a circular icon with the category name at the center and a series of small dots around the circumference.

These dots are numbered, and the numbers represent the ranking of the result associated with the number. Mouse over a dot, and a preview of the result pops up. Click on it, and the resulting page opens in a new window, and that dot changes color to help you keep track of which ones you've visited. Hovering over a category name shows you a list of subcategories that can be accessed by clicking the center of the icon.

This layout allows KoolTorch to put as many as 100 results on a single screen (with no scrolling). The downside is that browsing the results isn't as fast as having a textual list. Never fear. Clicking on the big blue "Text" button at the top of the screen shows the same results, only in a more traditional list format. They're still broken up into the same categories, and now the previews display next to the text of the results. You can still click on the category name to see subcategories. Most users will probably use the graphical interface to get into the category they want, and then switch to the text view. You can switch between text and GUI anytime without impacting your result set.

The only problem with KoolTorch is the results themselves. Going back to our favorite Paris Hilton test search, of the top 10 results, nine of them went to the home page of a domain. For instance, the No. 3 result was www.youtube.com. Several of these top results no longer had anything about Paris on their front pages. Other results were just ... strange. The No. 8 result was to some site called "Groovy Mom," where I read: "Seriously it is all so grouse [sic]. The whole situation is entirely grouse [sic]. And sad. I about puked when I heard she was on house arrest."

Our second test search didn't fare much better. The No. 1 result for "thermal tear shuttle" was to a news aggregator site, and the second and third were to the home pages of aerospace-oriented sites. The fourth link was to a specific article, but it was from 2003.

The bottom line is that KoolTorch has succeeded in creating a very interesting front end for displaying search results; now it needs to work on getting better results to display. Hopefully such an improvement is in the works.

Before I leave KoolTorch, though, there's one more facet to mention, and that's its eBay search. What makes this special is that instead of getting normally ranked results, you get results sorted by time left in an auction. All the rest -- the categories and so forth -- is the same, but each dot tells you how much longer the auction will run. These numbers are pretty accurate. I checked a bunch of results that listed one minute remaining and found them still open and with 15 to 45 seconds remaining. That's darned close to real-time search results. KoolTorch is definitely worth checking out if you're a fan of eBay.

This completes my minitour of alternative search sites. Of the four I looked at, only Mahalo provides a positive new search experience in terms of both user interface and results for day-to-day searching. It still has a lot of work to do in order to populate its data space, but that should continually improve. Clusty is worth visiting when you've got some deep searching to do, and being able to customize result sources is a nice touch. (Clusty also has a pretty nice "Clustybar" add-on for Firefox. Check out its "mini-mode.") Kartoo has decent search results but a confusing interface, unless you dig around and find the old HTML version. KoolTorch offers a fresh user experience, but the results just aren't there yet. Hopefully that will improve.

So, should Google be worried? Not just yet. But it's good to see that there are companies out there trying to carve out a segment of the market. Competition means that search tools will continually improve, and that's good news for all of us.

Peter Smith is a Web developer and freelance writer with a special interest in personal technology and digital entertainment.

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