The Quest for a Better Search Engine Continues

Stephen DeAngelis

June 5, 2009

I have written several posts about previous attempts of “new and approved” search engines to unseat Google. As we all know, however, Google still reigns. Nevertheless, contenders for throne continue to come forth [“Attack of the Google Wannabes,” by Robert D. Hof, BusinessWeek, 18 May 2009 print issue]. Hof writes:

“British mathematician Stephen Wolfram plans to launch an online service intended to provide more useful answers to search queries than the standard list of Web pages. IBM just took the wraps off a computer program designed to field questions well enough that it can compete on Jeopardy! with the game show’s best human contestants. And Microsoft is planning to relaunch its own search service this spring, though the details are top secret. Why challenge a company that has crushed every contender to date? Certainly, rivals want a slice of Google’s $20 billion in search-related revenue. But they also see that search has loads of room for improvement.”

Hof believes that no “Google killer” has come along because Google “remains essential to most Internet users, and the new services are often more complementary than competitive.” The focus of Hof’s article is WolframAlpha, “which takes a new approach to collecting information and presenting it. Its staff of 250 culls government and other public databases and crunches the data so they can be presented quickly as useful facts and figures. The idea is to ‘give everyone expert-level knowledge of everything,’ says Wolfram.” WolframAlpha certainly falls into the complementary rather than competitive category. The site provides some interesting examples of how best to use the search engine. Type in “San Francisco to Tokyo” in the search bar and you get back the miles between the two cities, the time a direct flight would take (traveling at 550 mph), and the population of each city as well as the current time and temperature at each location. I suspect students will find the site very useful when completing homework. Hof points out, however, “for many everyday queries, say, ‘Chicago restaurants,’ WolframAlpha produces few helpful results or nothing at all.” Hof notes that the reason some new start-ups gain traction is that they fill a niche not covered by Google.

“Twitter, which lets people post short public messages about what they’re doing or thinking, has just added a way to search all posts. Twitter has quickly become the go-to place to find out what’s happening in real time—from airplane crashes to the latest Apple rumors. Because it takes hours or days for Google to index most Web pages, the search giant’s results generally don’t offer the same immediacy. Perhaps the most promising new search enhancement is bringing people and their knowledge and contacts more overtly into the search results. The startup Aardvark, for instance, whose staff includes five former Google employees, lets people send questions by instant message or e-mail to friends whose social networking profiles show they’re knowledgeable about particular subjects. Ask Aardvark what’s the best off-road bicycle to buy, and a friend who’s a cyclist might answer with a model and a good local store. Another startup, Mahalo.com, uses a staff of people instead of computer algorithms to organize search results for the most popular search terms. That helps eliminate unhelpful sites and save time.”

As for Microsoft’s “top secret” new search engine, it has been given a new name “Bing” and by clicking on that link you can find out more about it by viewing a Flash movie — the actual search engine has not yet been released. The Flash movie is part of Microsoft’s hype [“Microsoft’s Search for a Name Ends With a Bing,” by Miguel Helft, New York Times, 28 May 2009]. Helft writes:

“Bing, the name Microsoft gave to the new search service it unveiled [28 May], is its answer to Google — a noun that once meant little but has become part of the language as a verb that is a synonym for executing a Web search. After months of, uh, searching, Microsoft settled on Bing to replace the all-too-forgettable Live Search, which itself replaced MSN Search. Microsoft invested billions of dollars in those services and failed to slow Google’s rise, so a new name certainly can’t hurt. Microsoft’s marketing gurus hope that Bing will evoke neither a type of cherry nor a strip club on ‘The Sopranos’ but rather a sound — the ringing of a bell that signals the ‘aha’ moment when a search leads to an answer. The name is meant to conjure ‘the sound of found’ as Bing helps people with complex tasks like shopping for a camera, said Yusuf Mehdi, senior vice president of Microsoft’s online audience business group.”

Not everyone, Helft reports, believes that Microsoft found a name that can compete with Google.

“Peter Sealey, a former chief marketing officer at the Coca-Cola Company, said Microsoft should have picked a name that more directly connotes search. ‘Bing has no equity; it signals nothing,’ Mr. Sealey said. ‘It is going to be an enormous expense to create an image for this thing called Bing.’ Google’s name is a play on the word googol, which is a 1 followed by 100 zeroes. The company has said the name speaks to its ambitious mission to organize all the world’s information. Asked about Microsoft’s choice of name at a press conference on Wednesday, Sergey Brin, a Google co-founder, said he did not know enough about the new service to comment on it. Then he deadpanned: ‘We’ve been pretty happy with the name Google.’ Meanwhile, some tech people were already noting that Bing is also an unfortunate acronym: ‘But It’s Not Google.'”

We’ll know in a few months if Bing works — both as a name and as a search engine. If the search engine is good, perhaps the name won’t matter. After all, William Shakespeare informed us “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”