September 2008

Following my last post a friend told me that switching to Microsoft’s Live Search was not the best idea and I should research other options. So I did, looking specifically for sites that are new and different (because, after all, it is quite possible that in the Google’s shadow a novel and better idea for retrieving information from the Web could be emerging yet unnoticed).

Of the sites I’ve found I reviewed the following: Cuil, Powerset, Clusty, Jux2 and Viewzi.

Of those I like Clusty and Viewzi most.

Powerset is merely an interface to Wikipedia, which is, I think, rather pointless as Wikipedia has a great interface already.

Jux2 simply combines results from Google, Yahoo and Live Search in one Google-ish list of results. It has one feature that can be handy for SEO types – it displays rank of each of the results in each of the original engines. But, I think, there are many SEO tools that do it much better than Jux2 and other than this it is unimpressive. Thumbs down on this one, too.

Cuil is interesting, however the results are ordered in a way I don’t get. How Cuil ranks the results (determines what is important and what is not) is clearly different from other engines, which is a big plus (shows some innovative thinking). I’m not sure, though, I like the effect, because what was ranked best was not what I’d describe as best. On the other hand on my test searches Cuil did return a few pages no other engine did, which is another advantage. This means I’ll keep Cuil in my Firefox search box for those extensive searches when I really want to unearth any piece of info on a given topic that I can lay my eyes on.

Clusty on the other hand tries to organize the results in groups it calls clusters. On some of my test searches they were helpful, on some they were meaningless, but I think they are a good idea overall. The tab with domains is a nice way to see at a glance where there are many sites about a given topic, which is also nice.

Clusty is merely organizing results from other search engines, but it offers different profiled searches – searches for jobs, blogs, images etc. – using different source engines, which makes results interesting. Good starting point, I’d say, when looking for something on the web – especially if you don’t want to see it through Google’s goggles (Google is not included as one of the source engines).

Last of the engines I reviewed today – Viewzi – is different only by its user interface. While it is largely Flash powered (which is a drawback) it is kind of cool. It offers different graphical views for presenting the results and really I like the Web Screenshot view. It allows you to see the pages found without opening them in other windows or tabs, which makes it much much easier to decide at a glance whether a given page is worth a visit or not. Nice for lazy evening searches. 🙂

Last but not least there is our own little experiment at searching – the Sprinters Search. While not as useful as the sites above – after all this is just a concept demonstrator – it shows what I’d like a search engine to do – recognize what I’m after and explain to me what it is, while at the same time return the traditional relevant page results.

In any case – it is good we are not stuck with Google. Let’s not allow our mental inertia and habit to use only them – let’s look around for search companies that just provide searches – not try to shape the society.

I already wrote about how much Google’s search monopoly worries me. Now there is one more reason to be wary of it – Google is officially, as a company, taking a position in the public debate on a social issue. This is more than unusual.

A few days ago a post appeared on Google’s official blog, signed by Sergey Brin saying that Google officially opposes proposition 8 that is to go under ballot in California.

No matter what we think of the issue at hand I think this is both unusual and very worrying if a corporation takes a stand on a social issue like this. It is even more dangerous if the company in question has a de-facto monopoly on search and strong position in other fields that influence what content gets through to the bulk of Internet users.

It is not to say that I’m sure Google is meddling with its search results or – say – YouTube content. But it is a possibility that is hard to dismiss. If Sergey Brin feels about an issue strongly enough to put the weight of his company behind his private opinion (as opposed to just his name) there will be a strong temptation to extend the “fight” with those holding a different position one step further. And if it happens it will be very hard to fight with. First, it would be very, very difficult to prove. And even if proven it would be fully legal, because being a private corporation Google is under no obligation to provide fair and balanced treatment to Internet content representing all opinions on issues of today.

I think in the long run this is a threat to freedom of opinion and expression on the Internet. For now, though, the only thing I can do is use Microsoft’s Live Search. And think of moving my e-mail off Google’s GMail.

This is a machine that I saw today at a local mall. Made totally out of cardboard and paper it was there on display to amaze the shoppers (it did draw attention of kids and men – women at malls are too concentrated on clothing to notice), was not doing anything useful.

A reminder how much can be achieved with simple means and lots of creative ingenuity.