For most people, the search engine search is over. Google, which currently receives at least half of all online search traffic, is The One. The search giant reinforced its hegemony earlier this year when it started presenting results for Web sites, video, news articles, and images, all in one seamless column. The new interface, which it calls "Universal Search," sounds definitive. Once you can search everything with a single box, what's left?
A lot, actually. Even as Google fulfills its manifest destiny by expanding to blogs, books, patents, streets, Earth, and even Mars, a bunch of other search sites have taken up the challenge of sorting the world's data. None of Google's competitors quite matches the industry leader for simplicity, ease of use, or even plain old accuracy. But if you're willing to mix and match, it's possible to outdo Google by picking and choosing from a host of nifty features that the search giant has ignored or overlooked. And of course, for every brilliant search gadget, there are a dozen you should avoid at all costs.
When it comes to interface, Ask.com is a thing of beauty. Instead of mashing search results together like Google, Ask teases apart video, images, news, and encyclopedia entries and displays them on different parts of the screen. If you ask me, this works better than Google's one-column strategy. Tech dorks made a big deal about Universal Search because it ranks results that are seemingly incomparable—for example, an R. Kelly video and fan page. But ranking them just feels arbitrary. If you're looking for a video, it's easier to glance at Ask's video section than to scroll down to wherever Google decided to rank it. Even if you don't know exactly what you want—just something, anything about R. Kelly—Ask's interface still wins out. The "Narrow Your Search" bar on the left-hand side offers suggestions for how to drill down, including "R. Kelly Lyrics," "Biography of R. Kelly," and "View R. Kelly Tape."
If you stick to Google, you'll also miss out on social searching. The idea for social search appeared as early as 2004, when Eurekster's "swiki"—part search, part wiki—began offering search results that "learn" from user behavior. The most clicked-on results get promoted, while those that are ignored fall off. A handful of sites now operate on the same Digg-meets-Google principle. At iRazoo, you can rate results with a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down. If you find a page helpful, it gets promoted and you collect points that can be exchanged for prizes. (At my top speed of nine evaluations per minute, I could win an iPod with just 68 hours of clicking.)
The theory behind social search—that human intelligence can do what algorithms can't—seems spot-on. Digg-like rankings don't make much difference without a massive user base, though. Seven of iRazoo's top 10 search results for "barry bonds" match Google's. And like Google, iRazoo tends to return statistics-heavy pages from big sites like ESPN.com and MLB.com—not the insightful news articles and hidden gems you'd expect from a more "human" search engine. I understand there's a chicken-and-egg problem here: The site won't succeed without lots of users, and it won't get lots of users until it succeeds. But unless iRazoo can deliver better results (or better prizes), that day won't come.
There's another approach to "people-powered" search: outsourcing your queries to distant, faceless slaves. Take ChaCha, which pays around 30,000 "guides"—real, living people—to help you search. If you can't find what you're looking for, you can open up a chat window and talk to guides, most of whom are helpful and polite. But if you're the least bit search-savvy, don't expect any revelations. When I asked about what to do when my basement floods, they sent me to four useful sites—all of which I could have found easily on my own. ChaCha does have one ingenious feature, though: a tiled "video wall" that lets you preview 20 videos at once. Awkward page placement notwithstanding, the video wall is way better than YouTube's still-thumbnail interface. Instead of scrolling through single-frame previews, you can mouse over each animated clip to get more info, then click to watch. Chad and Steve: Get on it.
Mahalo is another "human-powered" search site. The much-hyped start-up from Jason Calacanis of Weblogs Inc. pays guides to assemble search results, just like ChaCha. The difference: Mahalo doesn't do it on the fly. Search for "Bill Clinton" and you'll get a pre-assembled page of links about the 42nd president, maintained by a guide named Nicole. Mahalo's links have a refreshingly human touch: The "Top 7" results include his recent Fox News interview, Wonkette's Clinton coverage, and the Starr Report. That's far superior to Google's first results page, which links to the William J. Clinton Foundation, the Clinton Presidential Center, and the Clinton Presidential Library, among other sedatives. But for all its good efforts, I suspect Mahalo is doomed. For one thing, its scope is limited—they're shooting to have 10,000 pages done by year's end, and 25,000 by the end of 2008. And even if it does grow, you have to ask: Why not just use Wikipedia?
Some sites are social in a different sense—less search engine than informational message board. In Korea, for example, Google is much less popular than Naver, a site that lets you throw out questions to the chattering masses. (Sorry, it's only in Korean.) But Naver's success may have less to do with a preference for humans over machines than the lack of searchable Korean text in cyberspace. A new English-language site, Fluther, takes a similar approach. Questions range from the practical ("Wart removal tips?") to the social ("How do you talk to women when you're shy?") to the existential ("What is the key to the universe?"). I guess Fluther could be useful (or at least entertaining) for general, non-pressing queries. But if you need a concrete answer instantaneously, stay away. Some questions languish for hours without a single response. So, Fluther runs into the same problem as iRazoo: There just aren't enough users right now to make it worthwhile.
The best alternative search engine I've stumbled across, YubNub, isn't a search engine at all. It calls itself a "command line"—a term familiar to DOS and Unix junkies—and serves as more of a Google-enhancer than a Google-replacer. YubNub gives you the tools to make searching with Google or Yahoo more efficient. Say you want to look for pictures of Paris Hilton in Google Images. You type "gim"—the site's shorthand for Google Images—and "paris hilton," and it takes you right to the page. Same goes for Google News ("gnews"), Wikipedia ("wp"), IMDB ("imdb"), Slashdot ("/"), Digg ("digg"), Dictionary.com ("d"), and a gajillion others.
What's fascinating about YubNub is that anyone can program these commands. Unfortunately, YubNub's interface isn't intuitive for people who don't use the verb "p3wn" in everyday speech. But its open-source approach to search should set an example for every site that wants to out-Google Google. Just browsing YubNub's thousands of commands gives you a taste of the possibilities. Typing "esv" before a search term peruses Bible passages in the English Standard Version. Write "fooplot" before an equation and it will graph it for you. Perhaps the coolest feature is the "mash" function, which lets you search for multiple terms at once on a split screen. If you want photos of birds from Google Images, Yahoo! Images, and Flickr, type "mash birds gim yim flk" and the screen splits into thirds, with search results in each panel. You can also split the screen to display multiple sites at once.
If I could Frankenstein together the ultimate search engine, it would have the classy interface of Ask.com, the slang capabilities of YubNub, the page-preview functions of iRazoo, ChaCha's "video wall," and a Digg-like promote/demote feature. (It would also find me a cure for myopia, an affordable health-care plan, and a date for Friday night.) I could do without ChaCha's "live guides," but I plan to recommend the service to my grandmother.
Of course, most people would trade all these features for one simple, reliable, do-everything search box. That's why none of these sites is likely to conquer Google anytime soon. (It's also why people are so excited about nascent "natural language" search technology, which lets you ask questions in plain English.) But as we become more adept at navigating the Web, more people are going to want more control over their search settings. Google has already made forays into customized search with, well, the Google Custom Search Engine, which allows users to specify exactly which sites they want to search. But how cool would it be to self-tailor everything from interface to command shortcuts to info on whether other people found a certain page useful? Enough with Universal Search. It's time for Yougle.