Search Engines: The New Kids on the Block - Copying Or Competing?
I'm sure that you don't need me to tell you that the world of the search engine is constantly in a state of flux – old search engines falling away, only to be replaced by new ones. This can be clearly illustrated this month as two well known favourites, Google and Ixquick are facing up to new competition. This article looks at who is competing with them, and provides some food for thought for those people who automatically go to one or other search engine.
You may or may not have noticed that the BBC launched a new search engine at the beginning of May this year, so I thought it might be a good idea to go along and take a little look at it.
I suppose the first question to answer is ‘Do we actually need another search engine out there?' The BBC obviously thinks that we do; in the news item on their website  they make reference to a recent NOP poll and Director of BBC New Media Ashley Highfield said "Given that 90% of respondents to the independent survey stated that they would use the BBC search engine, and that a similar number said they would prefer unbiased search, it is evidently something that people want." However, while the average searcher may welcome the new search engine, rivals such as Espotting and Overture are rather less than enthused, citing unfair competition. However, since they're more than capable of looking after themselves, I'm more interested in the engine itself.
One thing that leaps out at users is the lack, indeed the non-existence of, any advertising. Indeed, this is a particular point that the BBC is pushing, and Highfield is again quoted as saying "The BBC, with its 80 years of know-how and editorial expertise is ideally placed to provide a UK-focused search engine that will not be tainted by paid-for results." (That'll be why Espotting and Overture are less than charmed then!)
It's built on Google's search engine technology, and although there are a number of similarities with it, it does have a number of major differences. If you take a look at it  it has a very lean design (once you can find it on the BBC page, cluttered and confused as it is), with a simple search box. No details of how to search, no link to any advanced search functionality, just a box. Once you've run a search and got some results the information that you're presented with is similarly sparse – page name, short description and URL. No links to similar pages, no cached version, translation or indeed anything else that we've come to expect from a major search engine.
There are two tabs to alter the set of results – ‘Results from BBC news' and ‘Results from all the BBC'. Useful if you're doing a search for current information or media coverage, but less than helpful if you want to search newsgroups or look for images for example. Having said that, the results page is well laid out and will, I'm sure, appeal to novice users. One useful feature does pop out at you; the ability to just search for UK results, and this isn't limited to sites that end in .uk – it also includes .com sites as well, which is a definite plus.
Is that enough to wrench searchers away from their avid devotion to Google  though? Well, in order to answer that question, it's necessary to do a little comparative work. The BBC engine automatically filters out pornographic and derogatory sites, while Google does not. This in itself is useful; a search for "Phil Bradley" for example doesn't bring up any pages that refer to the American gay porn star of the same name when using the BBC offering, which makes a nice change!
A very quick and unscientific series of searches does however appear to show that while the BBC offering can come within touching distance of Google when it comes to UK sites, it falls behind when looking at the web generally. The following table shows the results of 3 searches when done for both the web and just limited to the UK
|Google Results||Search Term||BBC results|
|3,780||"Phil Bradley" (web)||2,750|
|891||"Phil Bradley" (UK)||737|
I'm sure that the automatic filtering of pornographic and hate sites is going to reduce the number of results by a factor, but for the BBC engine to be down about 106,000,000 results on the general web search for ‘Internet' is pushing that rather too far. However, that of course is only one part of the equation – what about the actual results themselves? I tended to find that both Google and the BBC engine tended to give me either exactly the same results for the top ten returns, or almost exactly the same ones; there was little to choose between them. On news stories there was however a difference – I did a search for the result of one of the World Cup matches that finished about an hour before, and while both engines produced current news links for me, unsurprisingly all the ones from the BBC engine originated from the BBC, while the Google results produced stories from African and American newsfeeds as well as Reuters. Consequently, I suppose that if you were looking for news stories with a particularly UK bias to them the BBC engine would be the better source, but if you wanted a more global perspective, you'd be better off using Google.
It's worth pointing out (even if the BBC don't do so themselves!) that the engine does use some of the advanced search syntax that is available with Google, such as site:, intitle:, inurl:, link:, related: although they haven't added the facility to search for file types for example.
In summary, I don't think that Google has got anything to worry about yet; the BBC search engine is no competition when it comes to searching the whole of the web, or for some of the advanced search functionality. However, having said that, it will prove to be popular with people who want quick and hassle free searching, who require a UK bias/perspective and who don't want to have to filter out pornography themselves. I'll certainly refer clients to it in the future who have any of those specific needs, but other than that, it'll only get a cursory mention at the moment. Worth keeping an eye on for future developments though.
Regular readers of my column (or people who come on my courses) will know that I have been very taken with the Multi/Meta search engine Ixquick , because it's fast, effective, works with the search engine ranking systems and queries a lot of different search engines in one go. However (like Google) it too now has some real competition, in this case from a new search engine called ez2www  (it's easier to remember if you say it aloud). The owner emailed me a couple of weeks ago asking me to try it out, and I have to say that I'm very impressed. Unlike Ixquick, it searches some of the major search engines, such as Alltheweb, Altavista, Google, Open Directory, Teoma, Wisenut and Yahoo. The concept is the same; pages that are highly ranked by several search engines come towards the top of the list, and results are then worked out on the basis of the position within the top places.
A search brings in quite a dazzling array of results – categories (based on the directory search engines), clustered results based on concepts discussed in the returned pages, sponsored links (which are clearly marked and neatly placed at the side of the page so that we can all ignore them), and a very useful summary of results at the bottom of the page, which makes it simplicity itself to see which engines returned results. If you're unhappy with the results, you can change the amount of time taken to search from the default 5 seconds up to a minute if necessary.
It also has an advanced search function which allows users to interrogate individual search engines, allowing a better opportunity to find material on the invisible web (although it doesn't inform you as to exactly where it gets the results from, which is a shame).
Another very nice feature is the option of choosing a particular country, and ez2www has an impressive array available. Appropriate news stories are presented, and local weather conditions are also the default option, as well as information on the standing of the local currency in comparison to the US $.
Ez2www defaults to searching the web, but also allows users to search their directory of 3,365,300 sites listed in 389,748 categories – of over 1,000 specific search engines. It also has a news function, taking feeds from ABC, BBC, CNN, Fast, Washington Post, Yahoo News and Moreover (though these are the defaults, so even if you choose another country, those are what you're offered, which is a shame.)
It has a few weaknesses – you can't search for images or through newsgroups for example, but these are minor points, and I mention them just so that I don't appear too enthusiastic about it!
I've already decided that ez2www is going to become my multi search engine of choice – sorry about that Ixquick, but you have to keep one step ahead of the game, and you've now got an awful lot of catching up to do!
-  http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/sci/tech/newsid_1964000/1964553.stm
-  http://www.bbc.co.uk/
-  http://www.google.co.uk
-  http://www.ixquick.com
-  http://ez2www.com
- Phil Bradley