By Ben Elgin
The Good Snags more hard-to-find info, packages content atop results
The Bad Struggles with some queries, rivals are closing the quality gap
The Bottom Line The most comprehensive and highest-quality search tools
Google retains a lock on the biggest slice of the Web search market, sometimes to the surprise of observers. Over the company's seven-year life, Internet users have typed billions of words and questions into the company's small, spare rectangular search bar.
And Google's (GOOG) share has only widened in the last 18 months, despite dogged efforts by competitors Yahoo! (YHOO) and Microsoft's (MSFT) MSN to beef up their own search tools. Since its IPO last year, Google's share of U.S. searches inched up to 37% of the market, while its profits exploded more than sixfold, to $343 million.
GOOD ALL-ROUNDER. But is Google as good as its market share and breakneck growth would suggest? Numerous researchers have been startled in recent years after taking an up-close look at the habits of search-engine users. When presented with results stripped of identifying logos, users deemed the engines -- particularly Google's and Yahoo's -- roughly equal in quality. But stick the branding back and poof! Google nearly always jumps out to a commanding lead in user satisfaction.
As Google passed its seventh birthday in September, I determined to find out for myself whether the site deserves its reputation for having the best search technology in town. As a journalist, I conduct dozens of Internet searches each day, mostly on Google. Recently, I began to run these queries on all the major search sites -- Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask Jeeves, and AOL -- to compare the results. I wrapped up my investigation with a 12-hour marathon of comparative searches on a wide range of topics, from the obscure to the mundane.
My conclusion: Google still provides the best all-around search experience. And while several competitors are hot on its trail, only in a few areas do they offer a better alternative.
SEARCH DEBATE. Google's strength is that it does most everything well. It has a famously Spartan and user-friendly homepage. And it appears to trawl more of the Web than its competitors. It boasts more bells and whistles, such as a handy auto-translation tool for foreign-language pages that turn up in its search results. And Google is on the leading edge of a trend to bring more information and content directly into the search-results page, saving users an additional click or two.
Like most information professionals, I conduct a large volume of arcane searches each day, often on very specific topics -- like the time I sought employees who worked for a certain Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) office in the late 1990s. When it comes to specialized searches like that, the size of the engine's index can play an important role.
The amount of online content that each engine actually sifts, however, has been the subject of heated debate. In August, Yahoo claimed that it searches over 20 billion documents and images -- more than three times the total last touted by Google. The latter's execs fired back, saying their engine combs through three times more online material than its nearest competitor.
OCEAN TRAWL. Whatever the true tally, my numerous queries revealed that Google nearly always returns more results, without yielding much -- if anything -- on quality and relevance. For example, I recently read of a relatively unknown, yet particularly nasty, patch of ocean just northwest of the Golden Gate Bridge, dubbed Potatopatch Shoal. Apparently, this submerged sandbar can generate giant waves 20 to 30 feet high and has swamped several ships over the centuries.
My interest piqued, I went to the search engines and typed in "potatopatch shoal." Google returned 32 listings, compared with 12 for Yahoo and nine for MSN. Among the documents that Google alone turned up was a riveting, 1997 story in The San Francisco Chronicle about a bar pilot escorting a Korean container ship through the perilous Golden Gate in the dead of night.
The fact that Google regularly snares more documents is one plus. Arming users with tools to crack these documents is another. A biggie is Google's auto-translation feature, which lets you translate documents from eight different languages to English with the click of a mouse. It has been a frequent boon to my research.
TRANSLATION BOON. Earlier this year, I was researching a potentially newsworthy link between Salesforce.com (CRM) and Japanese business Macnica. Salesforce.com wouldn't comment, and a Macnica official said he didn't know of any such ties.
So I went to Google and simply typed in the two companies' names. One listing, entitled "CRM Customer Success Story," grabbed my attention. It was a link to a page on Salesforce.com's Japanese Web site. Unable to read Japanese, I clicked Google's auto-translation feature and hit the jackpot: Macnica, indeed, was a customer of Salesforce.com.
Identical searches on Yahoo and MSN turn up the same page, but they don't offer a translation feature. In this particular case, I would have been left guessing as to the page's contents -- or at least hunting for a translator -- instead of moving ahead with the research.
THE EXTRA MILE. Another area where Google excels is going beyond the typical ho-hum search-results page. Google, like most of its competitors, is beginning to package content above the usual listings, the so-called 10 blue links. If you go to any of the big search engines and type in a stock ticker such as MSFT, for Microsoft, you'll get a small box of information at the top of the results page, showing Microsoft's latest stock price, a graph of the stock's movement, and other market information.
In many cases, however, Google goes beyond its competitors in adding extra information. Searching on Google for "Flightplan" and "Omaha" or "Capote" and "San Francisco," for instance, brings up a small box with the names of theaters screening each film in the respective city, including show times, a link to a map of the cinema's location, and other useful info. MSN and Yahoo don't highlight any such information.
Other queries produced similar results. A search for "8 piece cookware" on Google brought up a box of three one-line product listings, including the name of the vendor and the price. Again, Yahoo and Microsoft don't cull anything above the search results. It's important to note that this is so-called editorial content, distinct from the advertising that adorns the results pages of Google and its rivals.
SOME MISSES. But for all that Google does well, it still has some drawbacks. For whatever reason, the company struggles to handle searches for little-known commercial entities, particularly those that include a person's name. This can include a sizable number of industries, such as doctors, dentists, investors, and lawyers, among other professionals.
Earlier this year, I encountered this problem when looking up an address for a doctor's appointment. I typed the name of my doctor, who I'll call "John Doe," into Google. Dr. Doe's name came up in numerous listings, such as papers and industry associations, but none of them contained his address. After trying several more queries on Google, I became frustrated and turned to Yahoo. My doctor's own Web site, with his name directly in the URL, was the first result that popped up.
It's not as if Google hadn't found the site, but it puts it at No. 28 out of 33 results. Yahoo and MSN both list it at No. 1. After several such experiences, I've adapted my searching habits and quickly move to Yahoo if Google doesn't deliver in its first page of results.
CONTENT CHALLENGE. One of Google's current strengths could also wind up being a long-term challenge. Right now, it packages content into results pages as well as -- if not better than -- any search company. But some rivals with strong content roots, including AOL and MSN, are starting to discover ways to include their vast stores of info into results pages.
As a whole, they only best Google on a few of these searches, but the potential is obvious. Type "Barry Bonds" into AOL, for instance, and you'll get a headshot of the baseball player, current-year statistics, and links to other info in a box above the results. The data is provided by SI.com, a sibling site. Google visitors, by comparison, will see a drab list of links.
Or type "Grand Canyon" into AOL. You'll see a photo image with links to driving directions, the official Grand Canyon site, and other info, all provided by AOL Cityguide. Again, Google visitors see little beyond the 10 blue links.
Despite the mounting challenges, Google still provides the best overall search option. Sure, its technology lead has narrowed in recent years, particularly with MSN and Yahoo throwing piles of money at their competing technologies. But after examining these engines side by side for several weeks, I have found ample reason to keep Google.com as my default search choice.
Elgin is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau