Rival search engines rev up

The Baltimore Sun

For the most recent chunk of our Internet lives, most of us have been on autopilot.

When it comes time to look something up on the Web, we "Google it."

We don't do this generically, in the manner that someone may "Xerox" a document on a Ricoh copier.

We literally "Google it," entering a search term (say, "Facebook widgets") in the box at google.com, hitting enter and letting Google supply us with an impressive absurdity: 7,880,000 results in 0.21 seconds, somewhere between 7,879,980 and 7,879,999 of which we will never consider.

We are more likely to do this than ever: Google's growing share of all searches executed in the United States now stands at about 3 in 5. But by failing to examine our search behavior, we are not only laying pavement on the road to monopoly, we are missing out. There has been no better time than now to stop automatically Googling and to start searching again.

The Yahoo and Microsoft search engines, as the distant Nos. 2 and 3 in the search market, are trying much harder to land some of the 80 monthly searches Internet users average worldwide.

They have both recently unveiled significant overhauls that make them easier to work with, nicer to look at and a little bit closer to figuring out what we really meant when we typed "Facebook widgets."

Engine No. 4 (or No. 5 in various rankings), Ask.com, the former Ask Jeeves, has taken to begging you to give it a chance via TV advertising. "Instant getification" is the clever, but not exactly catchy, term its ad agency cooked up for what the search engine claims to do.

Type "getification" into the Ask search box, though, and the first thing it does is suggest that you might be trying to spell "certification." Yahoo Search thinks you might mean "gasification," while Live Search, Microsoft's engine, offers "gratification" and even includes results for it.

Although it offers a pleasant interface and many options around the edges of the window, I've been less than impressed by Ask in several tests. The site is supposed to be strong in travel, but a search for Chicago sites turned up Ticketmaster's offering of Michael Baisden tickets on the first results page. The radio host is appearing there, true, but of all the city-related Web sites, of all the events taking place there, why this would score prominently on the list is confounding.

But search Chicago at search.yahoo.com, and you get, first, Yahoo's own Chicago travel guide, from the Yahoo Travel site, with a skyline photo and a link to a slide show of other photos of major attractions. Below that are the sites selected from out on the Web, in this order: the City of Chicago; the Convention and Tourism Bureau; Metromix, the Chicago Tribune's things-to-do guide; Chicago Citysearch, another city guide; the band Chicago; the Tribune; the Sun-Times; the Chicago Wikipedia entry; the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, and the movie Chicago. Not a clunker in the bunch.

"Yahoo's release is almost like mind reading. They're anticipating what you're going to do next," says Charlene Li, an analyst who covers consumer search for Forrester Research.

Improving your searching is important because, while it has become the dominant means of Web navigation, a survey Yahoo commissioned suggests that only 15 percent of people find what they want on the first search.

More and more, the engines are working to try to turn a three-page process - enter search term, get search results, click on what you were looking for - into a two-page one, where the results page tries to provide some of the most obvious answers, Li says.

Don't expect earth-shattering changes, though. When one comes up with an innovative feature, it's a safe bet that the others will find a way to offer a version of that. All, for instance, are trying to offer more photo and video links along with text results. Yahoo, which owns the Flickr photo-sharing service, is doing an excellent job incorporating its image library into its results.

So Yahoo gets my default search-engine vote, partly for what they've doing, partly because competition is good for Google. But others will find features or tendencies they prefer in the other search engines.

It is simple to test them and to switch back and forth. If you have the Firefox browser (and you should), the upper-right corner is a search bar that will automatically execute searches based on what you type in. The drop-down list provides a handful of engines preloaded; you designate which one you want to use by clicking on it. To add others, click on the "Manage search engines" link at the bottom.

If you run Internet Explorer, the process is almost identical. Using the tabbed browsing features, you can run side-by-side comparisons. And soon enough, you can be searching again, rather than, by force of habit, Googling.

Steve Johnson writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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