Searching out search engines

This week’s CBC Radio Web column…


Have you ever heard yourself say, “Let me Google that?” Probably. Google is by far the most popular search engine on the World Wide Web–so popular many people never think of using anything else. But Google isn’t the only way to search for things on the Web.

Just how popular is Google? Only one way to find out: I Googled “Google search engine share.”

According to the Web site Market Share, in May Google had 51.71 percent of the search engine market. But that’s just the U.S. version of Google. Add in Google U.K., at 9.84 percent, Google AdSense at 3.4 percent, and Google Canada at 3.24 percent, and the Google share rose to 68.19 percent. Yahoo!’s various Web sites were second at 11.37 percent, MSN came in at 4.55 percent, and “Other” accounted for 15.83 percent–but “Other” includes all the other national Google search engines, so much of “Other” is actually Google, as well.

Search engines predate the World Wide Web, and the first one, Archie, was actually a Canadian invention, created by McGill University student Alan Emtage in 1990. (Archie is short for Archives.) When the Web began in 1993, Archie became the first Web search engine.

Others followed. (Two of the earliest were called Veronica and Jughead, because they were inspired by Archie.)

Most search engines have three main parts. They send out spiders, computer code that follows links on the Web to request pages that haven’t been indexed yet or have been updated since they were last indexed. These pages are added to the search engine index, or catalog, the second main part of the search engine, which is what you actually search when you use a search engine–which is why you sometimes find links through a search engine that no longer work. Finally, the third part is the search interface (how you enter search terms into the search engine) and relevancy software, which decides how high to rank all the hits your search term turns up.

Google is an excellent search engine, no question about it, and it’s the one I default to, like most others. But like all search engines, it can miss things–which is why it’s often useful to conduct a search with more than one engine. Since each one has a different way of ordering results, the top hits can vary quite a bit.

By way of example, I chose to do a search on a word chosen more or less at random: “meadowlarks.”

The number one hit on Google was a very useful page called “Birds – Everything about Meadowlarks.” The second hit, however, was, which isn’t about birds at all, but the Meadowlarks Irish Setter Kennel in Virginia, “breeder of specialty and Best in Show dogs.”

I mention that because that site was the number-one hit on several other of the major search engines, including Alexa, ExaLead, mozDex, and WiseNut.

Windows Live Search agreed with Google about the top link, but had a second link about a 1950’s vocal group called The Meadowlarks. A different link about the same group surfaced first over at Yahoo! Search, where the top link was to an AOL Music page. Gigablast pulled up a page at Rolling Stone about the vocal group. And finally, had as its first hit an article about the Western Meadowlark from Cornell University, but its second link was to the annual Meadowlark Festival held in the South Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys.

The other thing you’ll notice about trying different search engines is that they each have additional features as part of their interface. Some automatically locate a few images for you, and pop them up at the top of the page.

(I should mention that most search engines now let you search for images as well as text, although the image search is based on how the image was labeled, not on the content per se, which can cause some surprises…which is why Google, for one, offers a SafeSearch feature intended to screen out some of those surprises, and why there are a few search engines designed specifically for kid use, including the one you can find at the Yahoo! Kids site.)

Some try to help you expand or narrow your search by showing you a list of related terms. Alexa, which ranks Web pages by popularity, will show you the ranking of the page, and also a thumbnail image of the page. And so on.

One way to make use of multiple search engines without having to enter the same search word numerous times is to use one of the sites that searches several search engines at once, then compiles the results for you. Dogpile is the one I use most often.

Those are general search engines, and they’re great. But what if you want to search for something very specific?

With a little looking, you can find search engines that focus on just about anything you can think of.

Perhaps you’re looking for information about a particular company or individual. ZoomInfo might be useful. Just to be consistent, I did a people search there for “Meadowlarks.” That didn’t turn up anything, but making the word singular brought up Arianna Meadowlark (what a lovely name!), identified as a spokeswoman for the International Peace Movement of the Czech Republic.

ZoomInfo draws its info from the Web, which is why, when I searched for myself, I found several entries, based on the various ways I appear online: I was identified as an author, a past writing student at The Banff Centre, a former president of Regina Lyric Light Opera, etc. In other words, use the information you find cautiously: it could be out-of-date, incomplete, or just plain wrong, depending on where ZoomInfo found it.

(Check out this story about a Pennsylvania county that got in trouble because it only did a Google search trying to find someone who owed back taxes, instead of making use of the phone book.)

Perhaps you’re researching companies because you’re looking for a new job. You might want to use Eluta, “The Search Engine for New Jobs in Canada.” Not too surpisingly, my all-purpose search word “meadowlarks” didn’t turn up any jobs. The more general term “bird” did, though: a job posting for an Airfield Maintenance Supervisor in Abbotsford, B.C., whose job description includes “Bird and Wildlife Management.”

There are specialized search engines for medical information, art, live video cameras…just about anything you can think of.

If you’re interested in searching published news stories for information about a particular topic, there are several specialized search engines you can use. One I checked out is, “Crawling the world for the latest news headlines 24x7x365.” “Meadowlark” turned up, among other things, a video entitled “Slam Poetry at Meadowlark” from the Lincoln, Nebraska, JournalStar.

Which leads me nicely to my next point: you can now search for more than just text, and more than just images.

PodScope is a search engine for podcasts, both audio and video. It says it’s the first search engine that actually allows you to search for spoken words within an audio or video file. “Meadowlarks” turned up nothing here, but a search for “Saskatchewan” turned up numerous hits, including a weather podcast, a restaurant podcast–and the “Question of the Week” from Quirks and Quarks from CBC Radio from April 14. From the site you can play just a very short segment from the entire file that includes your search term: then, if you wish, you can download and play the whole thing. (The Quirks and Quarks podcast popped up because the “Question of the Week” was answered by a professor at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan.)

And then there’s blinkx, which allows you to search “more than 12 million hours” of video. Here “meadowlarks” turned up 14 videos, the first one of which was an aerial tour of Meadowlark Vineyard in California.

Even more specialized is, a search engine that simply searches for sound files. Looking for sound effects or a musical instrument sample for a video or stage play or audio recording? Enter your search term a “Meadowlark” turned up 20 sound files, among them this recording of a western meadowlark (the kind we have around here).

But it’s worth noting that most of the big search engines are also offering searches for audio. One that doesn’t–yet–is Google, although it does offer a video search.

AltaVista does offer an audio search, and it was through AltaVista Audio Search that my search term “meadwolarks” turned up this recording, at a site called Doo Wop Café, of Don Julian & The Meadowlarks singing “Heaven and Paradise.”

A nice note to end on, don’t you think?

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