Search Engines With Smarts

A number of new Web sites make it easier to find those elusive facts

Everyone knows that just about all human knowledge is out there on the World Wide Web. And everyone knows that, unless you get lucky, finding just the bit of information you need can be an awesome challenge.

Conventional search sites are getting worse, as their owners reposition them as portals--and steer traffic to any other site willing to pay for a listing. But there's a new breed of search tool that can make pinpointing the information you want a lot easier.

VAST SEA. The new tools (table) recognize the limitations of a search engine, such as Compaq Computer's AltaVista (, that follows the one-search-fits-all approach. For example, finding specific information, such as the teams in the 1935 World Series or the definition of a mathematical concept, calls for a search strategy far different from the one needed for finding information on Panasonic products or the home page of a local business.

Ask Jeeves is the star at pinning down specific bits of data in a sea of information. It combines two approaches. First, it checks your query against a large database of frequently asked questions and lets you choose from a list of responses that it thinks come closest. It also parses your inquiry, translates it into search commands, and turns the job over to several search engines. Most of the time, one or the other approach provides a good answer. For example, the question, "Who is the attorney general of Florida?" returned a link to the state AG's home page. And "Do androids dream?" gave me references to the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner, the movie based on it.

Jeeves--named for P.G. Wodehouse's ideal butler--is far from perfect. Thinking of impeachment, I asked: "Who was Samuel Chase?" and "What judges have been impeached?" but found nothing useful. And a request for Sony Corp.'s home page, which I put to each new-breed engine, got a helpless: "Sorry, I cannot answer your question at this time."

Like many of these search tools, the Ask Jeeves Web site is designed largely to display technology that the company hopes to license. For example, Dell's Ask Dudley online help system is a specialized version of Jeeves.

Google, like its inspiration Yahoo! Inc., is the brainchild of a couple of Stanford University students, and it looks and feels like a work in progress. Google is designed to be what Yahoo! was in its preportal days: an easy-to-use directory of Web sites. It is especially good at finding organizational home pages with a minimum of fuss. My Sony search took me directly to; the same search on Yahoo! required me to dig down four levels to find the site.

Northern Light goes to the other extreme, offering forms that allow you to create complex searches. For example, it lets you restrict results to a specified date range or to a type of source. In addition to the Web, Northern Light will search a large "special collection" of periodicals and sell you an article, typically for a dollar or two. This is a good tool for finding the obscure, but it often fails on the simple: My Sony search returned thousands of hits, neatly organized into folders, but I couldn't find among them.

BY PRICE. Direct Hit assumes that what you want is probably what others have found, and so it ranks results by the popularity of the sites. Sometimes, Direct Hit is a near miss. A search for "Super Bowl XXV" came up empty, although it suggested a more profitable search for "Superbowl history." A search for Sony took me straight to is one of the Web's stranger ideas. It sells its listings, and how high a site ranks depends on how much the owner is willing to pay for each visitor. The payment is clearly displayed with the search results, which can be odd. The top response to my Sony query was online auctioneer, which sells some Sony products. The site paid 29 cents for my visit, but listed no Sony products on the page it gave me. Sony's own site, which didn't pay, ranked 14th. GoTo seems to be getting payment mainly from sites that want to latch on to a popular name, a formula that doesn't work well.

Except for GoTo, all of these services are useful tools in the hunt for information on the Web. Picking the right one for the right job can greatly enhance your ability to find what you want.

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