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?

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 Or are those terms out of date?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.

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