How do we know if a new search engine is any good?

Inside the Internet.
July 29 2008 7:16 AM

The Search Engine Litmus Test

How do we know if a Google competitor is any good? A Slate reader contest.

Cuil

In a 1966 review of the new Random House Dictionary, Kurt Vonnegut wrote that the key to understanding a new dictionary was to "look up ain't and like." These two definitions are the quickest way, Vonnegut promises us, to determine whether a dictionary is "descriptive" or "prescriptive"—if it explains how language is used or if it decrees how it ought to be.

Nowadays, not so many people use dictionaries—why bother when you can look up the definition online? Vonnegut's idea is no less relevant today, though. Monday's launch of Cuil, the latest search engine gunning for Google, brings us to this question: What queries can you give a search engine to quickly expose its strengths and weaknesses?

Advertisement

Slate wants your suggestions on the most useful queries that, when given to a variety of search engines, neatly show the differences between them. To borrow an example from my review of Powerset, the phrase "Who shot John Lennon?" demonstrates the semantic search engine's ability to answer simple questions better than Google; more conventional queries usually favor the incumbent. Or, to take another approach, perhaps a given keyword returns pages on one search engine that another refuses to crawl altogether.

When you send us your search queries, make sure to include your thoughts on what the results reveal about Google, Cuil, Ask, etc. Different engines prioritize results in different ways, based on notions of a page's authority, usefulness, or popularity. Like dictionaries, does this make some search engines descriptive and others prescriptive? Or are those terms out of date? If so, send us some new ones.

Please post your submissions to the Fray or send them to slate.search@gmail.com. E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Entries will be compiled for a future column.

Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.

TODAY IN SLATE

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.
Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

Walmart Is Crushing the Rest of Corporate America in Adopting Solar Power

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 1:47 PM The Best Way to Fry an Egg
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 5:38 PM Justified Paranoia Citizenfour offers a look into the mind of Edward Snowden.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.