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Hot on the Web

New ways to search

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on April 16, 2004
(Issue 2216, Freebies and Goodies)

As this is written, the search engine wars are flaring up again.

Yahoo has severed its ties with Google, which formerly powered searches on Yahoo – still the Internet's No. 1 site in terms of visitors and traffic. Yahoo has now developed its own search engine, and should be done making the move from Google by the time you read this.

Google knows a threat when it sees one, and – desirous of remaining the most popular search engine – has added tens of millions more Web pages to its search, meaning even more results will now turn up.

At the same time, Microsoft is beefing up its search engine – which is also proprietary. AltaVista's new owners seem to be putting development money into that venerable search service. Even AOL seems to have its own in-house search technology.

And so, for the first time in about five years, there is real competition among search engines.

Not since the brief Yahoo-Google spat have Web users had a real battle going on for their loyalty.

Some history

In the mid-'90s, as the World Wide Web made the Internet easier to navigate (and thus encouraged more people and organizations to put content of real value online), there was an early and brief, but ferocious, search engine battle. AltaVista, Lycos, Bigfoot, Infoseek, Magellan and a couple more that are slipping my mind all claimed to be the best search engine. Later on, you had some johnny come latelies like LookSmart and Ask Jeeves.

As each of these search engines used different methods of both cataloguing the Web and organizing search results, there were some real differences in the results you'd get on any particular search.

Once Google became ascendant a few years back, though, most of the other search engines changed their business plan – rather than selling advertising access to the visitors to their search pages, they either tried to license their search technology to others (AltaVista) or turned their domain into a portal (Lycos).

A benefit?

There are those among us who argue that competition is bad – that we are better off today with the market stability that Microsoft provides by having Windows as the de facto standard.

It's hard to see how anyone could make that argument about a search engine, though. Even Google, which takes in more of the 'Net than any other search engine, doesn't catalogue every site, every page. Which means the information you're seeking may indeed exist and even be online, but not come up in your search.

Which means, for your purposes, that it does not exist.

If other search engines take in different parts of the Web, though, then the likelihood that the entire Web will eventually be catalogued and available for searches is that much greater.

This competition is also likely to mean that the a search done on Google may bring up different Web sites at the top of the results than when done on Yahoo or MSN.

And that all combines to mean that the ability of one company to decide what the rest of us see and find online is never absolute – that we always have choices, and can take advantage of those services that we find best suit our needs.

Even the most hardcore Microsoft or Google apologists ought to be able to admit that the above scenario best meets their own needs – is, in fact, superior to having everyone use the same search engine.

Yet another option

Into this already crowded field comes Grokker (taken, I'm sure, from the Robert Heinlein novel "Stranger in a Strange Land," in which Mars-born human Valentine Michael Smith uses the word "Grok" to mean to learn and explore and understand).

Grokker has been around for a bit, and it's not a search engine site – it's a software tool that you have to install on your computer.

And it's not free – there's a trial version you can download from, but then you have to pay $49 to buy it when the trial period is over.

What sets Grokker apart – and what has, I would wager, hindered its ability to make more headway in the market – is that Grokker organizes its results much, much differently from any other search tool.

Grokker is intended to be more intuitive than your standard search engine interface, and in some instances, it is immediately so. In others, it only confused me – which, in all fairness, might very well be because I've been badly programmed by 15 years of traditional search engines.

Anyway, when you do a Grokker search, the results are organized graphically, in either a series of concentric circles or squares (I found the square display to be easier to organize mentally, but undoubtedly others will prefer the circles). Each circle, and its subcircles, contain thematically organized search results.

So, for example, say you're doing a research paper on Albert Camus. You type in "Camus" into the search bar, just as you would on any traditional search engine. But when the results start coming in, they're organized into these circles labeled "literature," "Nobel," "Sartre," "philosophy" and others.

And so when you want to figure out which results to check out first, you don't have to simply scroll through hit after hit looking for a promising site. This method of organizing results by themes also saves you from having to run multiple sub-searches in order to narrow down your results. Using Google, you'd have to try "Camus + philosophy" or "Camus + literature" to get the same results Grokker already gives you.

The new version of Grokker, Grokker2, also now has what its publishers call a Google "plug-in." What it really is, though, is the ability to run a search through the Google search engine, but use the Grokker interface to organize the results. You can also search the Web through the Teoma search engine (although it's not named as such in the Grokker pull-down menu), or search or your local hard drive(s).

It's in these last two applications where I suspect Grokker's organizational ability will be most immediately clear. For instance, if you're shopping for my next birthday, and you know – because of the kind of suave, debonair guy I am – that I dig Frank Sinatra, you can search for Frank Sinatra items. Here, the results are organized into product type – VHS, DVD, CD. Now that makes perfect sense, and is infinitely easier to browse than Amazon's own Web interface.

The local drive search, too, is much more intuitive in Grokker than using the Windows Explorer search tool.

There are numerous ways to fine-tune your search – all of them easily accessible from menus in the Grokker interface.

If you're frustrated with traditional search engines, the free Grokker trial version is worth a look. It is a bit of a system hog – my PIII 500 runs Grokker slower than molasses (the minimum system requirement is a 400Mhz PIII ... okay, maybe I need to upgrade). And there's a beta version for Mac OSX also available for download.