Search engines – out with the old, in with the new

Back in the summer Yahoo announced that it was to close the search engine AltaVista, and that duly happened in July. I suspect that most people’s reaction would be either “what on earth is Alta Vista?”  or “Blimey! Is that still going?”

Alta Vista came along in 1995, at a time when there were several competing tools and no clear leader. It rapidly became everyone’s favourite tool for finding stuff on the net. Google’s arrival on the scene a few years later posed a serious challenge and by the end of 2001 Alta Vista was losing users hand over fist.  Later it was sold off to Yahoo and disappeared from most people’s radar.

Google has dominated the search world ever since, though other tools still have their followers. Microsoft launched Bing as a direct rival to Google.  Personally I have never found a reason to use Bing until this week.  A blog post by Karen Blakeman suggests that “Bing seemed to be better at recipes and shopping enquiries than research oriented queries.” She describes how a tool called Bingiton allows you to submit a search to both Google and Bing and compare the results you get back.  It prompts you for 5 searches in a row and asks you to choose your favourite set of results for each. At the end it tells which service – Bing or Google – you chose as giving the best results.

A new search tool that has launched recently looks interesting.  It is called Blippex and tries to do something different from Google.

Blippex’s algorithm, called DwellRank, decides relevance based on how long users spend on a site and how many times Blippex users have visited it. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have, independently of the Blippex team, established that the amount of time someone spends on a web page or document is, not surprisingly, a pretty good measure of how important and relevant it is.

A blogpost by Christopher Mims with the arresting title “This is the first interesting search engine since Google” explains more about how Blippex works. It is built by observing the behaviour of its users, who are invited to download a plugin. Pages that users spend longer looking at are given a higher ranking. The consequence of this is that the database of pages is currently far, far smaller than Google’s.

Christopher Mims admits:

At this point, Blippex’s search results are pretty rough, but at least they’re different than Google’s, and often significantly different.

My first impression is that it doesn’t home in on relevant pages in the way that Google does, and it needs to get bigger and better quickly to be of real use. But it is an intriguing approach, distant cousin to the idea of social search.

It will be interesting to see whether Blippex will grow into a genuinely useful service, or perhaps blaze the way for another tool to take a similar approach.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we slip from print through to electronic information resources.
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9 Responses to Search engines – out with the old, in with the new

  1. aeon says:

    Just visited; it directly redirects me to bing. Also, cf. this: “To make matters worse, Microsoft has refused to release the results of its comparison website,”

    This is annoying. Ever since the browser wars started, Microsoft was not good at disclosing information. They seemed to have learned some things on the way, but this is the old near-monopolitsts “take it or leave it” attitude all over again, is is not? With the slight difference that Google now has the upper hand in the new battlefield, the search engine war.

    Just btw, tried blippex. No “literal search” with quotes. Damn, even Google dumped this pretty much. How to find stuff, literally, when the algorithms don’t understand things like “”, NEAR, AND, NOT, OR, XOR…. ? I really hate it when things try to be ‘more convenient’ or ‘better’ and loose their old abilities on the way…

  2. Frank says:

    That is strange – works for me; I don’t get redirected. I forgot to say that I did take the Bingiton challenge for one round and found 4:1 in favour of Google. I didnt have the patience to try a longer test.

    I agree that Microsoft’s attitude sucks. But if people do not believe their claims for Bing it must discredit them?

    I also share your frustration with Blippex’s lack of phrase search. They need to get considerably smarter and match all the things we have come to expect of search before they are a real contender.

  3. Cromercrox says:

    Ah, those were the days. I remember AltaVista – and Lycos, and Excite. All now extinct. Although there is a survival-of-the-fittest effect at work (as seen in competing video formats and so on) there is some merit in diversity. Until fairly recently I would use AltaVista or Bing to broaden my searches, but it’s easy to get oneself into the mindset that as one uses Google almost all the time, then that’s all there is.

  4. Frank says:

    Yes, it is too easy to place one’s trust in something that always seems to work, and to assume that it always will work. But allowing a single MegaInfoCorp (c) to accrete so much power and influence may not be an ideal situation, cf. big supermarkets and local specialised foodshops.

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Bingiton is redirecting straight to Bing for me, too – maybe it’s a geographical thing.

    Blippex sounded interesting, but the first three searches I tried suggest that it needs much, much more work. For example when I searched for my own name (I know, I know) the top 20 results were Quora answers I’d upvoted – which makes sense, given how long it can take to read the answers to a popular question on that site, but hardly useful if someone’s looking for my blog or twitter account.

  6. Frank says:

    Cath – I agree Blippex is not really ready yet. Their problem is that in order to grow, the site needs people to download its plugin. But if people don’t know (or care) about the site why would they?

    You also raise the question of whether their idea is correct that spending longer looking at a page necessarily means that page is more important than other pages you spend a shorter time looking at. If that idea is incorrect then the whole basis of Blippex is shot to pieces.

  7. Ah, Alta Vista, my web weapon of choice for a long time. I also recall WWWW (the World Wide Web Worm) and WebCrawler, but I’d forgotten about Lycos (thanks, Henry).

    Bing is just another of those things I file in the category of “useless crap that software packages are forever wanting to install when I upgrade something”, along with the McAfee antivirus stuff and some search bar or other that Adobe seems to tout with every new version.

    I do agree with “aeon” that I wish Google was smarter about logical terms. That would be handy.

  8. Frank says:

    I used to like Hotbot too, mainly because it was a silly name.