Search Engines: A Mixed Bag - A Review of Some New Search Engines
People are of course aware that Google isn't the only search engine out there, by any manner or means, and although many people regard it as the biggest and the best, this certainly isn't the case for those organisations who decide that they want a share of the search engine market. This month I'm going to look at some of the new search engines that have appeared, and will see how many of them make the grade.
Euroclips: The definitive European directory
At first glance it's hard to see that Euroclips  is in fact a search engine - it looks much like one of the older style 'portal' services that I thought we'd seen have their heyday a couple of years ago. The home page is very busy, with the latest news headlines, business news, travel (with information about Valentine's Day breaks together with a broken image) European holiday destinations (clicking on Germany brings up a map, some facts and figures and 'currency' details which are incorrectly spelled). There are also other sections for shopping, computing, money and so on.
I did eventually find the search button, but there wasn't an advanced search feature, any help guides or indeed any indication of what I could or couldn't do with the search functions. I tried a search on my name (hey, I'm vain - what else can I say?) and it eventually came up with 10 results. There was an option to refine my search, so I tried limiting to 'computing' which resulted in 10 different results, almost all of which were commercial in nature. Perhaps I've misunderstood the meaning of 'refine', but I certainly wasn't expecting the very unhelpful results that I got.
I next tried one of my other favourite searches, for 'Everton' and several of the results were all commercial - eBay, and a ticket website for example, but no actual link to the club's own website. Oddly enough, the refine options were exactly the same as when I searched for my own name, which didn't inspire me with confidence.
I tried one final search, this time for 'internet' and once again, all that I got were commercial sites of one sort or another.
I always like to try and find some positive points about any site or search engine that I look at, since I dislike being entirely negative, but Euroclips is going to prove to be an exception to that rule. It appears to be wholly dedicated to commerce, and provided very few useful, informative sites. It's not one that I'll be using myself, though I suppose if you are looking for a product to purchase you could try giving it a go.
YouSearched: The accessible Web search
The YouSearched  search engine has been specifically designed for people with visual impairments, and has the seal of approval from both the RNIB and Bobby. The interface was very clear and easy to use - the search box in particular has been written to appear with a large, bold typeface. The search engine also has a category approach, with 15 categories from Arts, to travel, to adult. Most of the categories provided me with 10-13 sites per page, with a total of 10 pages to look at, and although many of the links were to commercial sites there was some reference to good solid informative sites as well. The search engine also provided me with several other categories that I could use to refine my search a little further, but even so, a quick comparison with Yahoo! showed that the engine has a long way to go before it could even begin to compete. I also wasn't impressed by the icons used for the different categories either - while they were clear and reasonably intuitive they were poorly drawn and would be the kind of images that I would expect to find in a primary school. My immediate thought was that although people might have a visual impairment it doesn't mean that they should be treated like a child!
Turning to look at the free text aspect of the search engine (that is to say, the search box, where you're free to type in any text that you wish), there was no advanced search function, or any help screens at all - users were left to fend for themselves once again. Perhaps I'm just being really picky here, but in my opinion searching is NOT obvious, and even it was, I'd still like to see an indication of the support any search engine gives to Boolean, phrase searching, field searching and so on. As a user I don't want to have to try and guess what I can do, and I don't believe that I should have to waste my time trying out syntax that isn't supported. However, I'll get down off that hobby horse fairly quickly and go back to seeing what the search engine could tell me about myself. The results were a little better than Euroclips, and I did find some reasonable sites listed which gave me useful material. The left hand menu suggested some categories that I could further search in, but these all related to various people with the forename 'Phil' rather than both forename and surname.
I think it's an excellent idea to provide people with various impairments with a search engine that is specifically tailored to their needs, however once again my cynical thought is that a person with a visual impairment is just that - they're no more or less stupid than the rest of us, and I fail to see why a site should expect to get away with providing a second rate search engine even if the visual interface is high quality. Personally I'd be inclined to use Google with a large font size, since it will give me a better set of search tools and an interface with a similar font size - I'm afraid to say that (once again in my opinion) YouSearched really doesn't deliver.
Ujiko  is rather an unusual looking search engine, in that the search box is at the top of the screen (no surprise there), but almost all of the rest of the page is an empty blank box - I reloaded the page twice, since I wasn't sure that the entire page had downloaded correctly. Thankfully this time however, a help screen was provided, although it still didn't give me a great deal of actual help, but at least it is a nod in the right direction.
Ujiko is based on the Yahoo! search technology, so it gives you access to over 4 billion web pages, which you can personally rank yourself once you've run a search.
All became clear when I ran a search, since the large empty box soon filled with results, although only seven to a page. The results were good, giving me informative information rather than more depressing commercial websites. The right hand side of the screen gave me various options to add to my search, which Ujiko automatically placed into the search box with my original terms which I thought was a nice touch. As I ran my cursor up and down the list of results, I had the opportunity of deleting results (with the dustbin icon), or giving them weighting (with the heart icon). Clicking on the heart icon brought me up a list of options, from adding the site to a self defined folder, to adding a title or description, which I also thought was a neat touch. Leaving the site and then returning to it, then re-running my searches again the search engine remembered my preferences for deleted pages.
Other options allowed me to send the URL of the results page to an email address, to view various self defined folders of pages that I'd added, consulted pages, answered queries and clear memory. This is an excellent idea, since if I'm researching a query over a couple of days, I'm never able to remember which web pages I've consulted and found useful, and which have been of no use. Ujiko also gave me a type of filtering option, with a number of pre-set filters for 'trash,' parental, personal and free pages, which, once they're turned on highlight the pages that match that filter in a particular colour. Not quite what I was expecting to see, but it was an interestingly different approach. The engine also gave me the opportunity for creating my own filters, (amusingly using the Kartoo search engine as an example) which did seem to work well.
Ujiko is certainly a different type of search engine, and I was impressed with the level of personalisation that it offered me, and I could certainly see times when it would be a useful engine to use. Personalisation of search results is certainly a hot topic at the moment, and I'm fully expecting more search engines to produce interfaces that offer this functionality in the future and Ujiko has certainly taken some early and interesting steps down this road. Only one particular question remains in my mind though: why is it called Ujiko?
A9 , the last search engine to have attracted my attention in recent months, is the offering from a separately branded and operated subsidiary of Amazon.com, Inc., which opened its Palo Alto, California, doors in October 2003. A9 is able to use this connection with Amazon to good effect - not only can it offer web search results, (powered by Google) but it can also provide access to excerpts from books (provided you are registered with Amazon). Another nice feature is that your search history can be stored on their servers so that you can access previous searches from any computer (and also edit the searches as well). A9 provides access to sites information, so it is possible for the searcher to obtain more information about the site without having to leave A9. As you might expect, A9 comes with its own toolbar, which almost rivals that provided by Google. For an in-depth comparison of the two, you may wish to refer to an article that I wrote just after the A9 toolbar was made available - you can find the article on my site .
The search interface is nice and clear, and draws comparison with the Google front page. However, once again there is no help screen available, nor is there an advanced search function available. This is slightly annoying because although the results are powered by Google, A9 doesn't have the same level of functionality as its more popular cousin - it wasn't possible to use the 'define' feature, but confusingly, it was possible to do a synonym search using the tilde character. Consequently, in order to see exactly what is and is not possible it would be necessary to do a lengthy comparison; this wouldn't be necessary if A9 provided help screens.
Results are displayed neatly on the page, with sponsored links at the top as one would expect, and the web pages listed below. To the right are two tabs - 'Open Book Results' and 'Open Search History'. Cached copies of many of the pages are available, and the site information (as previously mentioned) is supplied via Alexa.
The book results open into a small vertical window, and clicking on a link takes you to the Amazon site (with all its exhortations to buy the product), but also has the option to search inside the book, or to read reviews of it. It is not clear to me quite why the results are displayed in the order that they are - they appear to be taken from the Amazon.com site, which is slightly irritating given that I use the UK version - I would not expect it to beyond the wit of their programmers to work out where I'm from by my IP address and direct me to the appropriate Amazon site accordingly, but this is a minor irritation.
The search history option opens up another vertical window, and allows me to see my recent searches, but also has them arranged in monthly folders, which obviously has both advantages and disadvantages to it. It is however, a nice feature and one that I can see would be of considerable value to information professionals who spend time going from machine to machine.
In summary, A9 is a good search engine - taking its results from Google, Amazon and Alexa it could hardly be otherwise. If you're the type of person who likes to check the content of books as well as web pages and/or moves from computer to computer a lot, this search engine could well become a very attractive proposition.
Of the four search engines I've looked at in this column, I'd give two, Ujiko and A9 a definite thumbs up; they both provide good access to data easily and quickly, and both have interesting features that allow for personalisation which is going to be a key battleground in the next couple of years as search engines increase the battle for the hearts and minds of their users. The two other engines were very disappointing however; both trying to fill gaps in the market, but both having missed the mark somewhat, in my opinion - neither of them really provide anything new. Unfortunately a new search engine isn't news anymore, and being new doesn't make it an attractive proposition - there has to be an awful lot more to it than that.
- Euroclips http://www.euroclips.com/uk/
- YouSearched http://www.yousearched.com/
- Ujiko http://www.ujiko.com/
- A9 http://www.a9.com
- A comparison of the Google and A9 toolbars http://www.philb.com/toolbars.htm