Run a Web search and what do you get? Often it’s a lot more than you bargained for. I’m not talking about the reams of irrelevant, redundant and irretrievable data that often gets tangled in your throw net. (You should know by now that you’re bound to get a certain amount of this stuff no matter how you phrase your query or what search engine you use.)
I’m talking about the way good old capitalism has worked itself into our Web searches. Do a search on desk printers and you’ll be greeted with a Hewlett Packard banner ad at the top of your search results.
There’s nothing new about this. Long before Yahoo! started selling keywords, real-world retailers were giving prominent shelf space to paying sponsors. And of course you know that the big ads and the bold-faced listings in the yellow pages aren’t for layout purposes. Exposure is vital to advertisers, and they’ll pay dearly. Likewise, if you want a free service, you have to pay another sort of price.
If you’ve recently visited Hotbot, a search engine that has topped many charts in the past year, you might have noticed the extra info that accompanies your search. Say you query HotBot on black hole research. In addition to your mess of links as well as a helpful link listing the Top 10 Web Matches for black holes, you might also be served an ad for CDNow displaying a small search form displaying the words “black holes” next to a “Go” button. And among the “Hotbot search partners” you’ll find an invitation to browse books on black holes at barnesandnobles.com, or search further at electriclibrary.com, a commercial database service.
When it comes to integrating searches and advertising, Hotbot doesn’t particularly stand out. Everybody’s in on the keyword game — Lycos, Excite, Infoseek. Typing in a query at most major sites has become akin to filling in a product survey. Sites don’t necessarily identify you as an individual but more as a consumer. And “Search results” pages have become dynamic niche billboards.
Some people — MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte included — argue that these ads, these bits of information, are a valuable service. If you’re looking into adventure tours to the south of France, you might be happy to know that Cyberian Outpost is having a special on French study software, or that cycling tours are available through Expedia.
A logical outgrowth of the trend in paid-for links has been newcomer GoTo.com, a search engine where sponsors pay for prominent listings. Sponsored links are clearly marked by the amount paid. You click on a link to Bob’s Tire Barn, and Bob forks over $0.24 to GoTo.com. Unpaid links, supplied by Inktomi, (the powerful search technology behind Hotbot), come after the sponsors’ links.
Misleading? Not unless you ignore the link that explains GoTo.com’s policy. And despite the concern of purists, GoTo.com has done reasonably well attracting both eyeballs and sponsor income. Last year, after GoTo.com’s launch, its approach to the info economy was tapped as one to watch.
A few weeks ago Wired.com reported that AltaVista would start inserting sponsored links. This was quite a surprise since AltaVista has enjoyed a reputation as one of the least commercial of the powerhouse search engines (and as a site which has opted not to jump on the portal bandwagon).
Does the marketplace determine how one runs a search? Of course not. It can supplement it, but it shouldn’t distort it. In the meantime you are still searching for something, right?
In the past year or two, powerful search alternatives and aids have surfaced. One approach is the metasearch, in which you can query many search sites simultaneously. This isn’t new either, but the tools — from Web sites to desktop applications — have definitely improved.
A forerunner is Copernic, a stand-alone application in which you can choose the search engines and databases that you want to query. The results can be sorted, refined and saved. The freeware version can search the Web, newsgroups and e-mail addresses; the commercial version ($30, available in Japanese) includes access to specialized searches.
Another contender is InfoExpress which is a bit simpler and quicker to use. InfoExpress conveniently burrows itself into the browser window and offers well-organized sources for specialized searches. The best part is that it’s free.
Mac users don’t have nearly this many options. But for owners of MacOS 8.5, there is the Web search function of Sherlock. Elegantly simple, Sherlock can be complemented with site-specific plug-ins.
Metasearches can also be run at a number of Web sites, such as MetaCrawler and Dogpile. Submit a query at one of these sites, and you’ll see why man can not live on one search site alone. Remember that metasearches are better for more specific topics. For broader subjects, try AskJeeves, a search site that accepts natural language queries such as, “Where do black holes come from?”
Among the search site alternatives, PlanetSearch and Northern Light are definitely worth a query or two. The latter does an impressive job of sorting results into folders.
And finally, there’s the highly recommendable Google.com, which was founded at Stanford University, the birthplace of Yahoo! and Excite. Google, which is still in beta form, is powered by a complex algorithm that determines a page’s “importance” based on how many other pages it is linked to.
In an informal search test, Cyberia’s home page appeared at the top of Google’s search results, while it was buried — or even unfound! — among the flotsam at other sites. We didn’t have to pay a thing, and I didn’t see one ad. Google gave me the links on a dime and 10 cents change. That’s the kind of bargain I like.