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You Grok?

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on August 19, 2005
(Issue 2333, Out of Harm's Way)

Fans of the late sci fi master Robert Heinlein will understand the above – it's taken from "Stranger in a Strange Land," one of the best sci fi novels (heck, one of the best of any kind of novel) ever written. To grok, in Heinlein's book, meant to understand – to understand at a deep, spiritual and visceral level.

A few years back, a new search engine was named Grokker – and given its visual presentation, it was rather apt. (Still, one wonders whether the Heinlein estate has gained any from the company's use of this bit of intellectual property. It was just last year, I believe, that the family of writer P.G. Wodehouse reached settlement with the folks running the Ask Jeeves search engine for their use of the name Jeeves, Wodehouse's beloved fictional butler.)

Early versions – in fact, all versions until now – of Grokker have required a download of the software. And it's not free – there is a 2-week trial period, and then you either fork over money or uninstall it.

We reviewed Grokker in this space in April 2004; in that review, I pointed out that Grokker's revolutionary results display both set it apart and probably hinder its adaptation by the masses.

For when you type in a search word or phrase – "Cincinnati Reds," say, or "Count Basie" – you don't see the results as a text list, but as a graphical chart, a series of circles or squares. Each circle or square is a grouping of similar results.

Making it easier

The Grokker folks have now added Grokker search to their Web site. That may have seemed a no-brainer, but their press release indicates it's a recent addition.

The implementation of Grokker searches on the site is straight-forward and clean, the results displayed in either Flash or Java (I didn't look at the source code of the page to figure out which).

The Web experience is nearly identical to the full Grokker experience – except that you can't use the Web engine to search your hard drive or network, which you can do with Grokker.

The Web search is powered by the new Yahoo! search engine; presumably, the same Web sites will come up in a Yahoo! search as a Gokker search – so it's the organization of those results that will differ.

Which brings up an interesting proposition – before shelling out $50 for a full version of the Grokker software, you could open two browser tabs (or windows if you're still using IE) and run the same search side by side in both Grokker and Yahoo!.

That ought to give you a pretty good idea if the Grokker model fits the way your brain works better than traditional search engines.

The unperturbable Jeeves

Since we're discussing search tools named for literary references, let's visit the above-mentioned

The original premise of the AskJeeves search engine was that you could type in actual questions and get logical responses. So ideally, you could type in "When was Count Basie born," and you'd get "August 21, 1904 ."

The artificial intelligence to pull that off has yet to be fully realized, although it's getting better. AskJeeves did return "Count Basie was born August 21, 1904" – along with the more typical list of Web sites with references to the good Count. But "Who did Dizzy Dean play for?" brought up just your typical links with no straight answer.

But with the ascendance of Google and re-emergence of Yahoo as search engine behemoths (plus the goodly portion of MSN and AOL subscribers who simply use those services' own search engines) AskJeeves has never really been able to make a dent in the search engine arena.

A visit to AskJeeves shows that the programmers there have been busy coming up with some new innovations to set it apart from the competition. The "Add to AskJeeves" feature allows you to add a button to your browser so that you can keep your bookmarks on your MyJeeves account. Those of us who use multiple computers – work and home, for instance – could well find this feature indispensable. And this particular feature, unlike Yahoo or Google browser toolbars, works in Netscape, Mozilla and Safari as well as IE.

Another intriguing product is Bloglines, a Web-based rss client that lets you set up your own blog portal so whenever bloggers write about a topic that interests you, you'll be notified.

There is also the ubiquitous toolbar for IE, as well as a search client you can download that will let you use AskJeeves to search your computer's hard drive – similar to Google's tool.

Still, as mentioned these features are available elsewhere from companies with more name recognition and significantly higher market penetration.

If AskJeeves is ever to live up to its potential, it won't be from these side ventures but from a maturation of the technology behind the original AskJeeves premise: Making search engines user friendly to the point that we can ask them specific questions and receive specific answers.

Hopefully, the correct ones.