The Ultimate QUEST

Google gets competition for thorough, fast Internet searching

October 15, 2001|By Joel B. Obermayer | Joel B. Obermayer,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's taken less than two years for Google to go from an upstart search engine to being a de facto benchmark. Not everyone uses it. But those with a savvy sense of what a search engine should be, do. It's quick. It's simple. And it has an uncanny knack of finding what you want much of the time.

But the Internet is all about new waves of technology replacing old ones. Even in the current oxygen-deprived tech economy, a new group of search engines have been popping up hoping to out-google Google.

They include Teoma, Wisenut and Vivisimo. They promise to get you what you're looking for faster. And in select circumstances, they deliver.

Teoma (www.teoma.com) is remarkably effective at finding expert sites, clearinghouses of information on a subject that can give you lists of links to use in research.

WiseNut (www.wisenut.com) is trying to outpace Google in the sheer number of Web pages that it has checked.

"There is no reason we have to stick with Google," said Greg Notess, founder of SearchEngineShowdown .com. "There are all these other search engines waiting in the wings for people to get tired of Google or who want a new approach."

Understanding the upstarts requires understanding what made Google such a groundbreaker.

The earliest search engines worked by taking the wording of a search and looking for the same pattern of words among millions of Web pages. They could help you find a specific Web page, but the result you wanted could be mixed in with thousands of other listings that were irrelevant. For instance, if you typed in the words "rental car," you might have to look through pages of results before you found the sites for the major car rental companies.

What Google did was change the paradigm. How do you choose between all the Web pages that have the words "rental car" in them? Why not list the most popular Web sites first, since those are most likely to be the sites someone is searching for.

To do this, Google looked at links between pages. The idea is that if I put a link to your page on my Web site, I'm voting for it. I'm telling the world that your Web site is worth looking at.

Taken to a massive scale, the concept is powerful. If 10,000 people vote by linking to a Web page, chances are that it's a pretty useful spot.

If you're looking at pages containing the words "rental car," chances are good that you'll turn up sites run by the major rental car companies and not some academic paper posted by a business school professor in Michigan.

`Changed the landscape'

Nearly every search engine has adopted part of the Google philosophy. Most analyze links when developing their results.

"Google changed the landscape. They showed if you had better technology and people tried it, they would switch," said Paul Gardi, president of Teoma. "Now we're trying to walk through the door they opened."

Among the search engines giving Google a run for its money:

Teoma. The Internet consists of hundreds of thousands of interlocking communities. Some are organized around a subject. Some are organized around an affiliation or a geographic region. Communities might include enthusiasts of old Beatles albums, sites for owners of Dodge minivans or sites that relate to coal mining towns in Appalachia.

Apostolos Gerasoulis, a computer science professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, came up with a way to identify these communities and then put your search question only to communities that may be relevant. The result is Teoma, a site that looks at a relatively small subset of the Web when answering a question.

In practice, Teoma's focus helps a lot when you are first exploring a very broad subject. It gives you a good list of results. And on the right-hand side of the page you get a list of expert sites that have tons of links within the community to get you moving.

One drawback is that the site has indexed only about 100 million Web pages, far less than most of the others listed here. Gardi said that amount will increase as the site moves from experimental status to a full launch.

WiseNut is the most Google-like of the upstarts. Started by Yeogirl Yun, a founder of shopping comparison site mySimon.com, it is spare and fast.

There's very little clutter in the results. It also is in a competition with Google to see who has the broadest content. The company claims to have indexed 1.5 billion Web pages that it can use in its searches. Google claims 1.6 billion.

Breadth doesn't guarantee you'll get what you want. But if you're looking for something obscure, it can help. WiseNut also has a "Sneak-a-Peek" feature that allows you to glance at the Web pages listed in your results without actually jumping to them.

On the downside, WiseNut's text sometimes is too small to read easily. One key feature, dividing searches into categories, doesn't work nearly as well as on Vivisimo and Teoma.

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