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    Search engine options offer new ways to help you find what you need

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2009 First published in Business in Vancouver July 14-20, 2009 Issue #1029
    High Tech Office column

    A decade ago, cyberspace was abuzz with startups trying to offer users ways to search the rapidly growing web. With the rise of Google, all this became irrelevant for most users. But apparently hope springs eternal. Recently, we’ve seen several new twists on the Internet search theme. calls itself “the first multimedia search engine.” Taking a visual cue from the cover-flow mode of Apple’s iTunes media player, it presents search results as a scrollable set of images of web pages. If you find it easy to scan a page full of Google “hits” to find what you want, you’ll find it slow and awkward, but if you work better with visuals than with text, it may be a better way to find what you’re looking for. Worth checking out.

    Wolfram|Alpha isn’t challenging Google head-on. Built as an online front-end to Wolfram’s Mathematica software, it calls itself a “computational knowledge engine.” Type in a math calculation or formula and you’ll get the answer. You can use natural language, such as “What is 15% of $1,000?” More interesting is that it also uses stored databases that are regularly updated.
    Ask “What is the weather in Vancouver, B.C., today?”and Google gives a page listing various sites with weather reports. Wolfram|Alpha instead gives the current temperature and more, plus charts showing the temperature over the past 24 hours and temperatures on this date for the past 30 years.

    In other words, rather than getting links to sites where you might find what you’re looking for, Wolfram|Alpha gives you the answer. Very neat – at least when it works. It’s limited by its stored databases, but also because its understanding of users’ questions is very much a work in progress. Too many phrases get a “Wolfram|Alpha isn’t sure what to do with your input” response. Still, it can provide a wide range of interesting information. Try comparing two companies listed on the stock exchange, for instance.

    Microsoft has a long history of trying to achieve online critical mass. In 1995, its then new Microsoft Network (MSN) unsuccessfully targeted America Online. Services like Hotmail and MSN Messenger achieved some popularity, but offered little to differentiate them from the competition. More recently, the company has offered a range of online Windows Live services aimed at home and small business users.

    The company has long offered online search services under a variety of names, including MSN Search and Windows Live Search but has perennially been in third place behind Google and Yahoo. The latest version went live in June under the name Bing. Microsoft calls it a “decision engine.” Like Wolfram|Alpha, it also promises instant answers: sports scores, stock prices, flight information and direct answers to some simple questions: “What is the capital of Alberta?” works. “What is the shortest flight from Vancouver to Paris?” doesn’t. Bing told me that “the shortest flight out of Vancouver, B.C., is 32 miles.” Like Google, typing the weather question in Bing gets a page of links to weather sites, not the answer.

    A sidebar offers helpful related links. A search for “Vancouver traffic” shows, on the side, related searches for local traffic cams, current traffic conditions and more. Bing promises localized movie, restaurant, hotel and other information. But somehow, these didn’t seem to work to my expectations. Nice though: hover the mouse cursor by the right edge of a search result to get text from the linked page. There are extra features for major sites: FedEx tracking numbers, business customer service info, for instance, and travel planning information courtesy of the Microsoft-owned Farecast service. Video search results provide playable thumbnails – very cool!

    Shortly after its June 3 startup, Bing passed Yahoo, gaining the No. 2 spot among search engines. With worldwide share of 5.62%, it will have a long way to catch up to Google’s 87.6% share, though.

    Despite Google’s dominance, for multimedia search, computational knowledge, or quicker decision-making, one of these may help you find what you need to know more easily. •

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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