News

Why Yahoo, not Google, should drive your search

Steve Johnson
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

For the most recent chunk of our Internet lives, most of us have been on autopilot.

When it comes time to look something up on the Web, we "Google" it.

We don't do this generically, in the manner that someone may "Xerox" a document on a Ricoh copier.

We literally "Google" it, entering a search term (say, "Facebook widgets") in the box at google.com, hitting enter and letting Google supply us with an impressive absurdity: 7,880,000 results in 0.21 seconds, somewhere between 7,879,980 and 7,879,999 of which we will never even consider.

We are more likely to do this than ever: Google's growing share of all searches executed in the U.S. now stands at about three in five. Google's stock has risen above $600, after people speculated about overvaluation at $500.

But by failing to examine our search behavior, we are not only laying pavement on the road to monopoly, we are missing out.

Since the ascendancy of the Mountain View, Calif., giant, there has been no better time than now to stop automatically "Googling" and to start searching again.

The Yahoo and Microsoft search engines, as the distant Nos. 2 and 3 in the search market, are trying much harder to land some of the 80 monthly searches Internet users worldwide average.

They have both recently unveiled significant overhauls that make them easier to work with, nicer to look at and a little bit closer to figuring out what we really meant when we typed "Facebook widgets."

Engine No. 4 or 5 in various rankings, Ask.com, the former Ask Jeeves, has taken to begging for you to give it a chance via TV advertising. "Instant getification" is the clever, but not exactly catchy, term its ad agency cooked up for what the search engine claims to do.

Type "getification" into the Ask search box, though, and the first thing it does is suggest that you might be trying to spell "certification." Yahoo Search thinks you might mean "gasification," while Live Search, Microsoft's engine, offers "gratification" and even includes results for it.

Although it offers a pleasant interface and many options around the edges of the window, I've been less than impressed by Ask in several tests. The site is supposed to be strong in travel, but a search for "Chicago" sites turned up Ticketmaster's offering of Michael Baisden tickets on the first results page. The radio host is appearing there, true, but of all the city-related Web sites, of all the events taking place there, why this would score prominently on the list is confounding.

The concert wasn't even among the "sponsored results" (better known as "ads"), which Ask doesn't do a very good job at distinguishing from the legitimate search results. The Yahoo effort (search.yahoo.com ), on the other hand, is so impressive I'm going to make it my default searcher. Best is "Search Assist," an expandable box right below where you type your search query that offers a bevy of clickable terms to help you refine it. A good reference librarian will write a specific, targeted search. Yahoo's search assist gets you close to librarian status, without the bother of getting an MLS degree.

Improving your searching is important because, while it has become the dominant means of Web navigation, a survey Yahoo commissioned suggests that only 15 percent of people find what they want on the first search. And, just as a 20-page restaurant menu makes you wonder if the place does anything well, a search result that gives you 8 million answers isn't as good as one that boils that down to 80, or even eight, that are highly relevant.

Search "Chicago" at search.yahoo.com, and you get, first, Yahoo's own Chicago travel guide, from the Yahoo Travel site, with a skyline photo and a link to a slide show of other photos of major attractions.

Below that are the sites selected from out on the Web, in this order: the City of Chicago; the Convention and Tourism Bureau; Metromix, the Chicago Tribune's things to do guide; Chicago Citysearch, another city guide; the band Chicago; the Tribune; the Sun-Times; the Chicago Wikipedia entry; the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago; and the movie "Chicago." Not a clunker in the bunch.

"Yahoo's release is almost like mind reading. They're anticipating what you're going to do next," says Charlene Li, an analyst who covers consumer search for Forrester Research.

As much as you might want to criticize the Yankees of search, Google provides a very good first-page "Chicago" list too. It starts with a link to the excellent Google Maps service, and it adds, in the results, a few very timely headlines from Google News, the company's news rake.

It leaves out Tribune and Sun-Times sites, although they are linked to in the news results. The "Chicago" movie listing comes, instead, from the Internet Movie Database site. Instead of the local Fed branch, it provides a listing for the University of Chicago. There's also a link for Chicago.com, the privately run aggregator of city information.

The outlier in Google's list is a link to the Chicago Bulls Web site. Presumably, if you want the Bulls, you would know enough to type the team name into the search area.

Live Search (search.live.com ), Microsoft's search, goes one weirder. Instead of the Bulls, on the first page of a "Chicago" search, it offers the site of the less-than-widely-popular Chicago Sky of the WNBA. Also, why the private Chicago Yacht Club would make the list is a puzzler that only Michael Baisden could answer. Or perhaps Bill Gates.

On the positive side, Live Search was the only engine to provide a link to a great Chicago neighborhoods site (neighborhoods.chicago.il.us ) and the only one to provide, right up front, a link to "Top Videos of Chicago," which the engine asks you if you find useful.

More and more, the engines are working to try to turn a three-page process - enter search term, get search results, click on what you were looking for - into a two-page one, where the results page tries to provide some of the most obvious answers, Li says.

Don't expect earth-shattering changes, though. When one comes up with an innovative feature, it's a safe bet that the others will find a way to offer a version of that. All, for instance, are trying to offer more photo and video links along with text results; Yahoo, which owns the Flickr photo-sharing service, is doing an excellent job incorporating its image library into its results.

So Yahoo gets my default search-engine vote, partly for what they've doing, partly because competition is good for Google. But others will find features or tendencies they prefer in the other search engines.

It is simple to test them yourself and to switch back and forth. If you have the Firefox browser (and you should), the upper-right corner is a search bar that will automatically execute searches based on what you type in. The drop-down list provides a handful of engines preloaded; you designate which one you want to use by clicking on it. To add others, click on the "Manage search engines" link at the bottom.

If you run Internet Explorer, the process is almost identical. Using the tabbed browsing features, you can run side-by-side comparisons. And soon enough, you can be searching again, rather than, by force of habit, Googling.

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