The New Search Wars

Search is getting big again. Will it work this time around?

Programs that search your hard drive have been around for a while, but few of them seem to last. There was Magellan, askSam (OK, still around, sort of), Altavista’s Desktop Search, dtSearch (still going strong) and Enfish (still around, barely breathing). That was in the 1990s. But it’s only recently we’ve seen folk get really excited about the space again: There’s X1, Tukaroo (bought out pre-launch by Ask Jeeves), HotBot Search, and now something called blinkx (thanks, Marjolein, for pointing it out.)

Blinkx was officially launched last month as “a free new search tool that thinks and links for you, eliminates the need for keywords or complex search methods, easily finding the information you seek whether it is on the Web, in the news or buried deep within files on your PC.” In other words, pretty much what the other guys do. I haven’t looked too closely at it, but the main idea, as co-founder Kathy Rittweger puts it, is easy search without the logistics: “By eliminating the mechanics of search, such as keywords or sorting through dozens of unqualified results, we drive users more quickly to their goal: finding something, even if they didn’t know it was there!”

That’s good, and I would have said before that that was the way to go, but nowadays I’m not so sure. I think that as disk space grows and people’s hard drives become more complex, different users need different grades of configurability. With most of these new search engines pitching to the ‘lite user’ there’s a danger the more serious document hunter gets left behind. It’s actually a simple calculation: Are you aiming at the casual user who is happy to stumble across a few documents they didn’t know they still had, or are you aiming at the user that needs to find all the documents relevant to their search?

Anyway, it’s good to see folk finally seeing this space for what it is: Horribly underserviced, full of missed opportunities and millions of folk lost on their own hard drives. With Google, Microsoft and others about to enter the fray, here’s hoping that we get something really good out of it.

Google The Portal?

At what point does Google stop being a search engine and start being what we used to call a Portal? Or has it already happened? Yesterday it announced a new search feature for tracking shipments via Federal Express and United Parcel Service. Type in your tracking number into Google and it will take you directly to the relevant company’s webpage, CNET reports.

The new “Search by Number” feature also brings up information linked to other kinds of numbers, such as patent numbers, equipment identification numbers issued by the Federal Communications Commission, and airplane registration numbers from the Federal Aviation Administration (for checking flight delays).

As Gary Price of ResourceShelf points out, offering such specialized information is not new: Ask Jeeves has been working on something called Smart Answers, AltaVista on Shortcuts for even longer. It’s intriguing that what folk a few years back thought would be popular — lots of noisy graphics and titbits of news in an all-flashing, all-dancing big brand portal — is being overtaken by something very, very simple: a quiet, white interface that lets you find what you want, whether it’s a recipe or a patent, fast. I kinda like that.

News: Jeeves, Where Can I Buy Some Plus-Fours?

 Here’s a new way of finding what you want to buy: Ask Jeeves. Ask Jeeves started out as a place you could ask normal questions (‘How long is a piece of string?’) and get answers that closely match your question, culled from the web (‘Want to buy a G-string?’). At least that’s been my experience. Still, it’s sometimes useful. Now, its new Smart Product Search feature, Reuters reports, will help consumers find, price and compare products on the Web.
Smart Search results already cover most consumer electronics, including cameras, computers, MP3 players and video games. In coming weeks, consumers will also be able to see Smart Search results for additional categories, including home and garden, apparel and children’s products.