Google is not the only fruit
It is hard to remember a time before Google, and now it is ingrained into everything we do, but there are alternatives out there, and sometimes a different sort of search is just what you need.
When Google arrived on the search engine scene it was a breath of fresh air. At the time, the major players in search were the now forgotten Alta Vista, and the early front-runner Yahoo. Alta Vista had begun its life looking very much like the first Google, but had added bells and whistles over the years until it became cluttered and slow. Google went back to basics with a minimalist interface and provided really speedy searches. Speed alone isn't enough. The other big selling point in Google's favour was the relevance of results. It indexed more pages and it gave a more intelligent interpretation of those pages.
Google is now absolutely dominant in search, but has it lost sight of what made it so successful? The interface is still minimalist by many standards, and yet it becomes more and more cluttered. Sometimes, on searches, I have sponsored links at the top, more of them down the side, shopping results, video results, map and streetview links, all before I get to the "organic" results that I am really interested in.
The dominance of Google also means that an industry has grown up around it in "gaming the search engine". Where once Google was good at ranking pages according to content, now pages have to be engineered to make them Google friendly if you are going to have any chance of getting near the top of your category. This is particularly apparent for retail products where the results are often dominated by Ebay, Amazon, and price comparison sites rather than the retailers or manufacturers own sites.
But is there any alternative? Sometimes, when you can't find what you want on Google, trying another search engine can give better results. One option is Bing.com, which is Microsoft's rival to Google, and really there is little to choose between them, but like Google, it is hard to see where the adverts end and the real results begin.
A new player on the block is the imaginatively-named Duck Duck Go. It doesn't seem to be as comprehensive yet as Google and it is still developing, but my experiences are that it often gives me a different set of search results to Google and Bing. The results page is clean and simple but against that it uses the technique of adding results as you scroll down the page which no doubt the programmers think is clever but it is gimmicky, slow and rather annoying. Two of the selling points of Duck Duck Go are that, unlike Google, it does not track you or profile you in order to target you with ads and that it takes you "out of the bubble". Google tries to tailor its results to you, working on the basis that things you clicked on in the past are of more interest to you, which can give you more relevant results but also risks keeping you in your comfort zone. Duck Duck Go doesn't do this so it will give different results to Google.
If you want something with a completely different search paradigm, try WolframAlpha which describes itself as a computational knowledge engine. This is still very much a work in progress, it is painfully slow by Google standards, and has a limited knowledge base which is largely US-centric, but its unique selling point is that you type in questions which it analyses and attempts to answer. Try it on questions like this and you might be pleasantly surprised by the results:
- who owns Microsoft?
- how tall is the statue of liberty?
- who won the 2009 Superbowl?
- how much is 72 kg in pounds?
- what is the 39th prime number?
- what is the capital of Turkmenistan?
- how much is $40 in euros?
- who wrote The Day Of The Triffids?
Whilst these are all questions easily answered by Google, it is the approach of Wolfram in encouraging questions rather than search terms which is interesting, and its attempt to provide definitive answers rather than links to pages which may or may not contain the answer. This may be a taste of things to come.
26th April 2012
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