Sunday, 21 June 2009

Seek, and ye shall find (Luke 11:9)

Don’t worry, you are at your friendly neighbourhood mainframe blog and have not been rerouted to a Christian fundamentalist site by mistake!! I’m just using the quote from Luke as a way of introducing a blog about search engines – following the recent introduction of Bing by Microsoft. I suppose I could have gone down the Bing (Crosby) and Bob (Hope) Road to Search Engines kind of introduction and worked my way to Dorothy (Lamour) jokes later on.

As an aside, and for budding film buffs everywhere, the films in the Road to series are Road to Singapore (1940), Road to Zanzibar (1941), Road to Morocco (1942), Road to Utopia (1946), Road to Rio (1947), Road to Bali (1952), and The Road to Hong Kong (1962) – the one with Joan Collins.

So, definitions first, a search engine is a way of guiding a user to the information they want on various Web pages across the Internet. Now, while that may seem fairly straightforward, we’ve all searched and looked at the answers and said to ourselves that that isn’t what we meant. And that’s the hardest part of the job of any search engine – knowing what a user actually meant when they entered a couple of words. It’s so easy to enter a word that can have many meanings – a place, a person, a school of thought, a song, or whatever. This is the kind of ambiguity that search engines are trying to overcome.

One solution to this problem is for every object to be allocated a key. Every Web page that refers to the object would include the key. This solves the first part of the problem, as far as the search engine is concerned it will know exactly what is referred to on that page. The search engine will know that it refers to the song, or to the person, or to the place, or whatever.

The idea sounds simple enough, but – and you just knew there was going to be a "but" – who is going to decide what key is going to be used by each object? Assuming the idea were to be accepted, then Search Engine Optimization (SEO) organizations would be getting plenty of work to update all the sites that they are responsible for. Which then leads to a new problem, which is how ordinary users would find good information and sites that weren’t updated to include the new keys.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the search engines that are out there.

Let’s start with Google, because most people are familiar with it. Google. Googles uses bots to crawl the Web and includes adverts around the ordinary results. It allows users to search images or news, and it has the quirky – I think that’s the right word – Wonderwheel (Click on “Show options" and it’s near the bottom of the list).

Wolfram Alpha doesn’t claim to be a search engine, but I included it here because it provides answers to questions. So, you don’t get 75 000 pages (or whatever) to look at to see the answer to you question, it tells you! Created by British scientist Stephen Wolfram, the new search engine allows users to ask questions using natural language and the search engine uses “knowledge models” to access the answer. I’ll leave you to judge how useful it is.

Microsoft’s Bing is the new version of The one thing that makes it very useful is that at the end of each result there’s a thin vertical line. As you mouseover, it shows a more in-depth preview of the content on the results page.

Let me say that other search engines are available – Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, etc etc.

The great thing about having different search engines available, and Google is quoted as having a monopolizing 80% share of searches, is that as one improves and tries to get an edge in terms of market share, the others have to improve in similar ways so as not to loose their share. Which has got to be good for those of us carrying out a search.

No comments: