Whatever you're searching for on the internet, there's more to life than Google. We've explored dozens of search engines, and crowned the best in several different categories. Our search-engine shootout reveals all.
Not many brands become verbs. Those that do are generally in positions of total market dominance – witness Nielsen/NetRatings' January 07 report, which found more than half of web searches in the US that month were 'Googled'. The second most popular engine, Yahoo Search, got less than half of Google's traffic.
But does Google deserve its success or is the company living off its reputation? Are people using Google because they're not aware of other, potentially better, search engines? To find out, we pitted Google against its big-name competitors, Yahoo and Microsoft Live Search, as well as smaller challengers such as AltaVista and Ask.com. We also looked at two dozen specialist search tools.
Google, it turns out, is very good. But it's not the best choice for text searches, which are the most popular kind. Even so, we were impressed by the accuracy, breadth and speed of the search results returned by the three top contenders.
Our tests included a good look at each search-engine's performance when asked to unearth specific types of result, such as a video, image, news story or blog. Along the way we discovered several useful tools that can help you go beyond the basics of search.
And competition was fierce. With rival firms implementing innovative tools and interfaces that enhance the user experience and deliver more relevant information, Google needs to stay on its toes.
Is Google still the number one search engine?
Most web searchers are happy using Google – and with good reason. Google is an excellent tool that came top in several of our test categories and was by far the best overall. But for the sake of curiosity and variety, try other search tools from time to time. You might prefer them.
Even the sites that performed poorly in certain tests have noteworthy features. Ask.com was mediocre at text queries, but it deserves praise for its usability and strong image searches. Yahoo, meanwhile, fared well in most categories, notably text searches. But it was weaker at finding images and video.
And you shouldn't forget the dozens of speciality websites devoted to searching for images, news, blogs and other specific items. These boutique engines can be a good choice for some subjects. 192.com and Yell.com, for instance, are great for people searches – 192 will help you track down ancestors as well as living relatives.
TubeSurf.com, a metasearch engine that simultaneously scans Google, MySpace, Yahoo and YouTube for videos, is a quick way to look up multiple sites. In many categories, however, the big engines were just as effective as the specialists.
Maybe you've heard that search engines all spit out the same list of hits. There's some truth to this claim. When you look for a major breaking story on several news sites you can expect similar results. But in our tests, the items returned varied considerably from engine to engine, particularly when it came to image, video and blog queries.
Image and blog searches
Our search for Mardi Gras photographs produced a motley mix of hits – everything from amateur close-ups of bleary-eyed revellers to professional-calibre shots of the Mardi Gras parade. And a search for the more-obscure 'windform' produced a hotchpotch of thumbnail images, from patio decorations to wood sculptures. We were actually after a musical instrument.
Blog results were equally unpredictable. In one test we searched for Huffington Libby, with our target match being an article from The Huffington Post blog on the trial verdict for former White House aide Lewis 'Scooter' Libby – breaking news at the time.
Some blog-search websites we looked at, such as IceRocket.com, Sphere.com and Technorati.com, didn't include links to the target story, but pointed to articles on other blogs that mentioned The Post's Libby piece. However, as with many search tools, there's a heavy US bias, as our searches on 'Tony Blair' proved.
We awarded three points if the first link in an engine's results led to the target answer or site (or the target itself appeared at the top of the results page or within the first result). A link to the correct answer as the second or third result was worth two points, while a link to the correct response elsewhere in the top 10 results scored one point.
For image-search engines, which typically include more than 10 thumbnails per page, we awarded a point if the target photo appeared on the first page.
With some queries, we were seeking a particular news story or blog article. We deemed other answers accurate as long as they had the requested information.
Competition and innovation
Long before Google, AltaVista ruled search. Before AltaVista, Magellan was the search service of choice. Historically, people have switched to another engine if they find it produces more accurate responses and is easy to use. Search engines now realise they need to up their game.
"The amount of competition that's out there right now is benefiting the consumer," says Justin Osmer, senior product manager for Microsoft Live Search. "We're all trying to come up with the next great thing, so you're seeing a lot of innovation in search."
Much of that innovation centres on how the services display results. Few people use their favoured engine's news, image or other specialist tools, even if doing so would mean more accurate results. The trick for vendors is to make their algorithms smarter, giving them the ability to anticipate what you want.
If you Google 'daffodil', for example, the results page will display photos of daffodils above the web hits. "What users really want is a picture of those things," explains Google software engineer Matt Cutts.
When we tried the same query in Ask.com, Microsoft Live Search and Yahoo, none displayed an image of the flower in their results. However, when we ran a similar search on 'Eiffel Tower', Ask.com displayed photos of the landmark, while Live Search offered a handy 'Eiffel Tower Photos' link in its Related Searches column.
It was interesting that when our US sister magazine performed these tests, Google and Yahoo displayed images but UK sites did not.
The integration of news stories with web search results is a work in progress, with Ask.com leading the way. For instance, when we searched (separately) for 'titan' and 'flash memory', only Ask.com posted the latest headlines on these topics. It included a link to a story about Saturn's moon Titan, and another to a piece on Intel's new flash memory storage, in both cases providing the information we were searching for.
When it comes to film-related queries, Google and Yahoo appear to have a slight edge. We searched for '300', looking for information about the Warner Brothers film released around the time of testing. The first match returned by both Google and Yahoo provided links to the film's trailer, photos and reviews, while Yahoo UK's top result offered more on its Yahoo Movies portal – which included cinema listings by postcode or city.
Microsoft Live Search, by contrast, offered trailers and reviews but, unlike its more established US counterpart, didn't consider the possibility that we might want to see the Spartan gorefest – it didn't offer any cinema listings at all. We performed the test again before we went to press using Spider-man 3 as the search trigger, but the result was similar.
The theory of relativity
The best results pages provide links to related items, even if they aren't exactly what you asked for (a great Beatles photo when you type in 'John Lennon', for example). And it helps if they know a little about you. If your IP address indicates that you live in the UK and you search for 'civil war', you're probably interested in the English Civil War. A historical timeline and some maps might be what you're after.
Ask.com does the best job of displaying related information and links. If you search for 'WWII', the service's Narrow Your Search column helps to fine-tune your query with such links as 'History of WWII', 'Cause of WWII' and so on. Yahoo and Live Search provide similar tools, but they're not as easy to use or as comprehensive as Ask.com's.
Other sites are improving the user experience in different ways. Live Search has a 'smart scroll' feature for image results. Scroll down a collection of image thumbnails and the page reloads itself, adding thumbnails as you go. Since there's no page breaks, you don't have to click a link to load more images.
In addition, Microsoft Live Search's Scratchpad is a handy visual-bookmarking tool. You can drag images from the results page and drop them into the Scratchpad column on the right. When you're scrolling through dozens or even hundreds of images, the Scratchpad makes it easier to track shots you want for a report or presentation.
However, not every interface trick works – and that includes a few that seem clever at first. Ask.com's Binoculars feature offers a preview in a pop-up window when you hover your cursor over results with a binoculars icon. But for text-page previews, the large thumbnails don't provide enough detail for you to see the content.
Some sites are adding a human element to their services.
"If you're looking for a hotel, search engines have traditionally presented you with a list of hotels," says Tim Mayer, Yahoo Search's senior director of product management.
"But there's no authoritative expert saying, 'I went to this hotel and recommend it.'"
For such gems you need to head to TripAdvisor.com.
Such 'human expertise' can significantly augment the auto-generated results. The best such example is Yahoo Answers, an online community where users ask and answer questions on a variety of topics.
Yahoo Answers posts have now been added to the bottom of some search-result pages. For instance, when you type in 'summer holidays', you see a 'Shared by Yahoos' section at the bottom of the results. This includes links to several 'Best Answers' on the topic, as chosen by users.
We found the Yahoo Answers opinions more relevant than many of the standard search results. One contributor helpfully described seven travel destinations in India, while another offered a list of family-friendly theme parks.
Opinion-based results are a good start, but these are usually relegated to the bottom of the page. Few people are likely to scroll down to find them. Tim Mayer acknowledges that Yahoo is just beginning to integrate this content.
"We're going to be learning more about how to rank it," he says. "In the long term, we'll incorporate it more aggressively on the search page."
Live Search linked to a message board on seasonal travel. This was labelled as 'boards.live.com', giving us no indication that it was specifically related to our search.
Yahoo's 'Also try' feature presents related queries culled from users. Search for 'muffins' and it lists muffin recipes, banana muffins and other related content.
Google's secret ingredient
How does Google maintain its edge against all this innovative competition? Partly it's down to its comprehensive index. "We live and breathe search," Matt Cutts says. "Guys will come in over the weekend. They'll say,'I was doing a query on this strange thing and I wanted Google to return this page.' And then people will spend a few hours figuring out how to tune our algorithm."
Other sites have their own fanatics, but Google has another strength, according to Cutts: timeliness. "If we don't have an important document or breaking news within a day or two of it happening, we need to do better," he says. "Search engines used to update once a month. We try to refresh little bits of our index every day."
Many smaller engines license an index from a larger player and adjust the results with home-brewed algorithms or via human indexing. This technique was pioneered by Ask.com and is now used by several services. The Yahoo-owned site AllTheWeb.com and AltaVista each use their parent company's index, while Lycos.com hooks into Ask.com and AOL.com is Google in disguise.
Smaller sites that mirror another's results may have an interface you prefer. Google's iconic, simpler-is-better approach is the industry standard-bearer: just a search box, a fanciful graphical treatment of the brand, plenty of white space and no adverts on the home page. Ask.com and Live Search mimic Google's minimalist motif, although the former spices things up a bit by adding a handy Search Tools column on the right.
AlltheWeb's home page is plain, consisting of just a query box and a few
tabs for accessing specialist sections. However, its parent site is the Piccadilly Circus of search. Yahoo's home page is so jam-packed with news headlines, adverts and links to other features that the search box is easy to overlook.
Specialist engines vary in presentation. Blogdigger adheres to Google's less-is-more rule, while Bloglines.com uses its home page to pitch its RSS newsreader and blog-publishing tools.
The future of search
Search won't alter radically in the short term. You'll probably see incremental upgrades rather than revolutionary enhancements. Search sites continually test new looks, some of which may go mainstream at some point.
For instance, Ask.com's Act X is an innovative, easy-to-browse interface that divides search results into three regions.
The middle displays standard results, the left has links for expanding or narrowing a search, while the right serves up related dictionary, encyclopedia and shopping links. Act X was launched as its main interface as we went to press. Meanwhile, Google is publicly testing new interfaces over at Searchmash.com.
A different approach is offered by Snap, which lists search results on the left and a preview of the first result to the right. Preview and Next Result buttons let you view results and scroll through previews.
The searchbox is still the sole means of data entry, which won't change imminently, but voice-driven search is a prospect already under development by Google.
Top search tips
Put quotation marks around your query: type 'air conditioning', for example.
"This creates that search as one unit, so all the results you get back will have that set of words," says MS Live Search senior program manager Jeff Osmer. Without the quotes, you'll end up with unrelated pages on air quality, hair conditioner and the like.
Use the minus (-) sign: this tells the engine you don't want a particular word. If you enter Shakespeare –William, you're instructing it to display results that match Shakespeare but do not include William.
Get definitions: use the modifier 'define' to turn a search engine into a dictionary. Just type 'define [word]' (or 'define: [word]' in Google) for a quick definition.
Don't underestimate the engine: search tools are constantly tuned to anticipate real-world queries. "For anything you throw into the search box, we'll try to find an answer," says Google software engineer Matt Cutts.
If you enter 'yellow polka dot bikini 45rpm excellent condition', the engine knows you're looking for a copy of the novelty record without scratches.
Search by numbers: let's say a number comes up on your phone and you wonder where the caller is located. Enter the area code in the search window to view the city or cities for that number. Be warned, however, that callers using VoIP (voice over IP) aren't necessarily located in the area code's geographical region.
See weather previews, fast: if you're going to Paris, for example, enter 'Paris weather' in the search box for a quick forecast.
Skip the advanced classes: every search engine offers sophisticated query tools that the vast majority of its visitors will never use. But if you don't know your Booleans from your hooligans, fear not.
"Most people are just typing in keywords these days, so the search engines had to be optimised for that sort of query," says Tim Mayer, Yahoo Search senior director of product management. People who use advanced search tend to be librarians or information professionals who bookmark the feature and use it regularly.
Stick with the tips listed here, and you'll see your search skills improve noticeably.
Taking search to the next level
The big search engines are great for everyday queries, but where do you turn for more esoteric answers?
Take a look at Rollyo.com. Here you can create something called Searchroll, a customised engine that provides results from up to 25 sites of your choosing, presented by category.
The real fun is in exploring other people's Searchrolls, and you can search by keyword or URL for topics that interest you. Add a few tags to help others find and use your creation.
Congoo.com is where you'll find the 'dark web' – the huge chunk of online content search engines can't index, including paid-subscription sites and password-protected corporate and government databases. Other pages can't be indexed because there are no links to their content, or because their very long and complex URLs are too difficult for search engines to crawl.
Much of this content is hidden for a reason. Companies don't want the product development and marketing plans on its intranet made public. But you can search – and in some cases access – many paid-content sites for free. Congoo NetPass, a free utility available at the firm's site, allows you to search and read a limited number of stories from 35 popular paid-content sites, including the online homes of Billboard, Encyclopaedia Britannica, The New Republic and The Wall Street Journal.
You can make between four and 15 visits per month, depending on the site. After this, you're prompted to subscribe to the service, since you're apparently finding it useful.
The free Congoo NetPass toolbar attaches to your Internet Explorer or Firefox browser. Type a query in the search box and press Enter. It searches Yahoo for the standard web results, but uses its own index to search for related paid-for content (such as a full company profile from the MorningStar financial service). If you already use another search engine's toolbar, you might find installing Congoo shrinks your browser's viewable area. Simply right-click your toolbar area and deselect the options you're not using to enlarge your browser window.
For another blend of social networking and search, visit PreFound.com. This lets you express your expertise in a subject by creating groups of links to the best web resources, whether news, images, video or other information. The service offers to share its revenue from the AdBrite online advertising network with finders who devise more than 150 groups. You can even become a Featured Finder. Along with the PreFound search results for your query, you'll find the standard Google listings.