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Google's Results Are Boggling Search Engine Users

 By Scott Hertzberg (scotthertzberg@wwwiz.com)

          When search engine analyst Danny Sullivan brings up the search engine Google at conferences, a certain look crosses the faces of some in the audience.

``They smile and nod in a way you do when you feel like you have found a secret little getaway no one else knows about," Sullivan explains. ``Each time I speak I see more and more people looking this way–pleased to have found Google."

          The number of enthusiastic Google users is certainly growing. In the two years of the search engine's existence, visits to Google have increased 50% each month. Currently, Google hosts more than 13 million searches a day, more than any other search engine except longtime leaders AltaVista and Yahoo.

          What bowls people over about Google?  In a word, precision. Google excels at honing in on the most relevant pages. Three quarters in a row the search engine has been ranked first in a searcher satisfaction survey conducted by NPD New Media Services . In the last NPD survey released in July, 97% of Google users said they find relevant results on the search engine all of the time or almost all of the time, the highest searcher satisfaction rate of any search engine. Not surprisingly, the NPD study also shows that Google users have the highest level of loyalty.

          Google is so good at narrowing in on relevant pages that it has an ``I'm Feeling Lucky" button.  This feature skips the results page and goes straight to the first result of the search. It's staggering how often the ``I'm Feeling Lucky" button calls up the exact Web page you want.

          To achieve such precision the search engine developed by Larry Page and Sergey Brin while still Stanford computer science graduate students relies on a fairly simple system that evaluates the number of links to a Web page. If a large number of links go to a particular Web page, Google considers that page important. If those links are coming from pages that are highly linked to themselves, Google views the page to be even more important. Several top search engines utilize similar types of link analysis, but Google's link analysis system known as PageRank is superior. PageRank has won Goggle awards from PC Magazine and the Webby Awards (the Internet's equivalent to the Oscars)  for technical excellence.    

          Brin and Page, the CEO and president respectively, released a beta version of Google in 1998. The test version, spread largely by word of mouth, immediately impressed search engine experts and professional researchers such as librarians.  The strong first impression helped the privately-held Mountain View company secure $25 million in venture capital from Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers shortly before Google's official launch in September 1999. Other investors aboard the Google train include Andy Bechtolsheim, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and current vice president at Cisco Systems, as well as Ram Shriram, former head of business development at Amazon.com.

          In June, Google became the first search engine to claim to search over one billion Web pages–560 million pages actually in Google's index and another 500 million pages linked to the pages in the index. Previously Google boasted a relatively small coverage of just more than 250 million.  That Google really searches a billion pages is debatable. One expert, Greg Notess, founder of Search Engine Showdown doubts Google's one billion claim. Yet even if it falls short of this mark, Google most likely now covers more of the Web than any other search engine.

          Shortly after expanding its database, Google announced a partnership with Yahoo. Google would start supplying backup results to searches on Yahoo. These are the results that show up for searches for things not in Yahoo's directory. Inktomi, the innovative search engine creator that powers Hotbot and iWon, previously provided the default results on Yahoo. Brin rightly considers the upstaging of Inktomi, ``A significant milestone for Google and a strong validation of our technology."

          The Yahoo partnership is not only a confirmation of Google's advanced search technology–and also quite lucrative–but because Yahoo is the world's most popular search site, it does a great deal to raise Google's profile. Since taking over from Inktomi in early July, Google has hosted 15 million searches via Yahoo per day. All these searchers stay on the Yahoo site but searchers see the phrase ``Powered by Google" atop the results.  It will not be very long before nearly every searcher around the world knows about Google.

          Google deserves all the attention coming its way. With its unparalleled size and precision, it is clearly the best search engine of them all. But exactly how good is Google? Does it have any shortcomings and in the wake of its insurgence are other search engines still of any use?

          A frequent criticism of Google is that the search engine has limited search capabilities. Unlike its major rivals, Google doesn't support searches by title or URL (Web address). This is only a minor shortcoming as these searches are rarely necessary and only missed by professional searchers. A larger problem though is that Google does not support stemming, wildcards or searches strung together with the Boolean command ``OR."

What does this mean? Many search engines recognize an asterisk as a cue to stem a word (teen* finds teen, teens, teenage and teenagers). Stemming saves time and maximizes results. Also helpful are wildcards that fill in characters in words you don't know how to spell completely. The command ``OR" is even more useful, letting searchers look for alternatives like in the search ``Association or Society or Council."  Google, which automatically places ``And" between Keywords, offers no such option.

          ``For the way people commonly enter queries–as a small number of relevant keywords–we think Google is superior to the competition," says Craig Silverstein, Goggle's director of technology. ``However we recognize that in some cases people want more flexibility in specifying their search and we are actively working on developing features like these as well as other features to make our query language more powerful."

With regard to the omission of the ``OR" function in particular, Silverstein explains that placing ``AND" by default between keywords best captures how typical users express an information need to a search engine. He stresses that this strategy is very effective but admits that if a user wanted to enter a lot of words and have them ``Or-ed" together, they would currently not be best served by Google.  Silverstein said Google would like to incorporate searches linked by ``OR," but its engineering team hasn't figured out a way to do so without what it considers an unacceptable degradation of the results.

          Goggle's limited search capabilities are one reason why the search engine is not always better than Northern Light, AltaVista and some of its other rivals.  Another is that Google, while huge doesn't index all the Web pages indexed by other search engines. Studies show a surprisingly small degree of overlap between Web pages indexed by the various search engines. Therefore if Google fails, you might be able to find what you're looking for on one of Google's competitors or even on vastly inferior search engine such as AOL or GOTO.

          Google, despite greatly advanced search technology, is not without its flaws. Nor is it so good that we no longer need any other search engines. Nonetheless, Google is currently the best search engine, providing superior results the majority of the time.  

          How long Google will remain superior is unclear. Already other search engines are catching up. Excite and Altavista are emulating Google as best they can and have improved their link analyst systems. Now searches on these search engines frequently (but not always) yield the same results as Google. Altavista has gone as far as copying Goggle's simple, uncluttered interface. Raging, launched this spring, is a streamlined version of Altavista clearly designed with Google in mind.

          It will still take the major search engines a while before they fully emulate Google.  And they may never catch up.  Working exclusively on perfecting search engine technology, the company's 120 employees make Google a moving target.

``Our take on the field," Silverstein remarks, ``is that if we put search engine technology from the '60s at 0% and Star Trek search engine technology at 100%, current technology is at maybe 5%. The Star Trek computer not only understood Kirk's voice, it understood his questions as well as a person would have. Likewise, it understood all the information it knew about. In addition it didn't just return a list of relevant results; it gave an executive summary of all the information out there.Google is dedicated to going down that road.  It's challenging but we also think it's very exciting."

 

Scott Hertzberg is a librarian–a job that is no longer boring thanks to the Internet. He has written several articles on searching the Web.
 

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