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Do you spend too much time searching the Web? If you always consult the same search site, the answer is yes. Sometimes you need a specialist that will find only what you want, fast. A slew of new services, from search engine veterans and newcomers alike, are making specialization the hottest trend in Web search.

Among the new faces here, Become.com wants to be your favorite for shopping searches, and Answers.com aims to be your first stop for word definitions, technology explanations, biographies, and other reference information. Veteran search sites MSN Search and Yahoo have countered by debuting their own specialized tools, such as MSN's Near Me for local information and Yahoo's FareChase for travel deals. Even Google is getting into the act with products such as Google Maps that let you search smaller universes of data more efficiently.

The era of search engines trying to be all things to all people is over--partly because we have become smarter and pickier about search, observes Chris Sherman, associate editor at Search Engine Watch. "Specialized search is absolutely a trend we're going to see continue," he says.

Another reason for all the activity: For search companies, specialization helps sell more advertising and pump up profits. Search services benefit when they can convince an advertiser that the right consumer is reading an ad at the right time--say, while shopping for an MP3 player or planning a vacation.

Google Homes In

For those occasions when an ordinary Google search may not be the fastest path to the information you need, venture into Google Labs to find out what's cooking. Enter starting and ending addresses in Google Maps, and you receive a 2D map along with driving directions and (in many instances) a zoomable satellite image of your destination (see Figure 1

Figure 1: Get a bird's-eye view of your destination, along with driving directions, by clicking a single link on the Google Maps site.
). You can use the site's satellite images to get a bird's-eye view of a possible vacation spot, too.

Satellite images have long been available at sites such as TerraServer. But Google's images are only 2 to 18 months old, whereas satellite images on other sites are often several years old. In addition, Google has made it blissfully simple to get driving directions and then click a link to see a satellite photo of the destination.

Suppose you're looking for papers on a topic by a certain university professor: Typing his or her name along with a keyword into Google Scholar yields more pertinent results than Google's main search page, which may return everything from local newspaper stories to results for a race the professor ran in 2002. (Note: Access to some of the site's information requires a subscription to a third-party service.)

Unfortunately, not many people will find much value in the new Google Video--yet. Though you might expect the service to search movie and TV files for video clips, it searches only for closed-caption text and still images from selected TV programs.

Gary Price, a librarian who operates the site ResourceShelf, says that a great site for video searches is Blinkx.tv. The Blinkx service employs voice recognition to let you hunt for spoken words from the BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News, the History Channel, and other television news sources, and then view the corresponding video clips. The site also offers some searchable movie trailers and news radio sources--but not TV series, which are protected by restrictive licensing rules.

Chasing Fares

Countering Google Scholar, Yahoo has added searches for information published via the Creative Commons licensing program that many academics and researchers use to publish online. More useful for nonacademics, however, is the company's FareChase site for travel searches; though the service is still in beta testing, it's open for use.

Sites such as Expedia and Orbitz are packed with information, but they also sell trips. Not surprisingly, they sometimes stress choices based on their business deals--say, with a specific hotel chain--putting search results at the top of the list that may not be the best match with what you seek. FareChase doesn't sell travel. It helps you find information, and then sends you to the hotel, airline, or rental car site you choose to book your purchase. Its many search-refinement tools let you start by looking for hotels in Miami for a particular week, for example, and then narrow the results by area, star rating, price, or feature, such as "pets allowed."

Among MSN Search's new offerings, the Near Me feature for local information stands out, Search Engine Watch's Sherman says. Though MSN, AskJeeves, and Google Local tend to deliver about the same quality of results for local searches, MSN automatically tries to detect your location, using your IP address and other factors. For instance, MSN Search guessed that I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts (I'm actually about 30 minutes from there).

But beware: Local search can be hit-and-miss, since at a granular level today's search engines struggle to grab local data and keep it current.

Finding local businesses usually works well: Plug a city name and "pizza" into Google Local, and you'll see a list of restaurants as well as a good-looking map illustrating the location of each establishment. But if you try to find a map showing the site of a local high school, you may strike out. You are more likely to locate commerce-oriented information than other types.

Answers.com: New Question King?

With its Instant Answers feature, MSN Search wants to be your guru for quick questions, such as "Who was the fifteenth U.S. president?" (see Figure 2

Figure 2: MSN Search delivers answers to your questions with its search results--while also plugging links to its Encarta service.
). The problem: Microsoft promotes data from its own properties--in this case, a profile of James Buchanan from its Encarta encyclopedia--in the links near the answer.

Similarly, if you type the name of a performer or song into MSN Search to get links to some music samples, MSN Music appears at the top of the search results list.

More compelling is the new resource site Answers.com, from GuruNet. Designed as a thorough collection of reference information, it gives straight answers to questions, plus a few useful related links. Answers.com works quite well for a quick word definition, a biography, or an explanation of how something works.

Suppose that you've read an article mentioning OLED display technology and you want to know what "OLED" means. Type the term into Answers.com, and the site delivers a good definition of the technology, a discussion of its advantages and disadvantages, and a list of a few companies that use it--all arranged on one page, freeing you from having to click multiple results from Google.

Ask Jeeves, however, remains the choice for such questions as "What's the current time in London?" (which the service will answer directly, without requiring you to click through to a results page). Type the same query into Answers.com, and you'll have to click through to one of several world clock pages.

A note to Ask Jeeves fans: It will soon be easier to find specialized information no matter where you may start on Ask.com. A revamped version of Ask Jeeves' Related Topics feature will appear this summer. Currently, Ask Jeeves suggests related topics for many Web searches. If you search for "digital cameras," for instance, the results will include links to camera reviews in a separate area. The new version will prominently offer to narrow your search to certain types of content: reviews, ratings, or how the products work, for example. It will also suggest results on allied topics (such as scanners and printers in this example) and, in some cases, names (such as pages about John Lennon when you enter "Paul McCartney").

Smarter Shopping Searches

Say you're in the market for a digital camera and want to do some prepurchase investigating online. Today you may go to a site such as Shopping.com, which features lots of sponsored listings and data fed directly from merchants. Become.com offers a different approach. This beta search site crawls the Web for product-related information, including data from the product maker, magazine articles, links to online forums for product owners, and other useful nuggets. A team of editors then cleans up and organizes the results.

Sounds a bit like Google's Froogle shopping service, right? But while Froogle also crawls the Web, it emphasizes product specifications, prices, and sellers--not the broader context of reviews and forums that the new shopping site delivers. Search Become.com for "Canon PowerShot," for example, and you will receive plenty of helpful evaluations from a range of sources, along with links to online forums about the camera.

The beta Brilliant Shopper also aggregates product info, but it has a much more cluttered look than Become.com.

At a Glance
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