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Comparing Search Engines for Quick and Dirty Answers

Magazine article Online

Comparing Search Engines for Quick and Dirty Answers

Article excerpt

"Google is our culture's principal way of knowing about itself."--Steven Johnson,

Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter (Riverhead, 2006, p. 121)

Information professionals, who spend much of their time on the internet, know that there are thousands of specialized search engines for every possible need, with more coming along each day. With such proliferation, it can be difficult to know where to start. If you're using Google as your first line of defense, you're in good company. According to Nielsen's NetRatings, which compares the percentage of online searches done both at home and at work in the U.S., in August 2009 Google came in first at 64.6% of searches, with Yahoo! lagging behind at 16% and Bing at 10.7% (http://en-us These statistics reflect the general public's use of search engines.

Information professionals do far more than the rudimentary searches performed by the general public. But they are sometimes confronted with "ready reference" questions requiring "quick and dirty" searches. In an effort to see how some popular search engines did, I compared Google, Yahoo!, Bing, Wolfram Alpha, and ChaCha with a variety of questions.

These particular engines were chosen either because they rank in Nielsen's top three (Google, Yahoo!, and Bing), because they've recently been in the search news (Wolfram Alpha), or because they have a radically different searching model and advertise heavily (ChaCha). Of course, there are thousands of search engines and informational websites, so this comparison is far from complete. The intention is to get a quick picture of the kinds of responses these different search engines return and, more specifically, which finds the correct answer on the first page with the least number of clicks.

Here are the questions included in this comparison:

* General but simple: What is lemongrass?

* General but complex: Do black bears eat people?

* Location specific: New Orleans restaurants' celebrity chefs

* Calculation: How many kilograms is 150 lbs.?

* Entertainment: What is the 2009 movie about competitive intelligence?

* Business: How do I do competitive intelligence?

* Science: How do you do continuous assessment in K-12 science classes?

* History: What does it mean when a toy is marked, "Made in US Zone--Germany"?

The chart on page 34 (Which Search Engine Found the Most Complete Answer on the First Page With as Few Clicks as Possible?) details the intent behind my questions and the results delivered by the five test search engines. Google is clearly the winner, finding the best answer four out of eight times, with Yahoo! at three, and Bing, Wolfram Alpha, and ChaCha trailing behind (with some overlap when they found the same reference). I conclude from this that, for the majority of general search questions, Google or Yahoo! is your fast lane to a quick answer.


Why is there such a great difference in the ability of each of these tools to find the right answer? Some of it has to do with how they search. Here's a quick definition of the five search tools utilized.

Google (

Google uses popularity and quality search algorithms to determine relevancy and offers full text of many resources, including webpages and other documents on the web (.pdf, .doc, .xls, blog posts, and wiki pages).

Best for: All around searches for just about anything general.

Yahoo! (

Yahoo! is more community-oriented and includes email, discussion groups, and much more in a full-featured site. It also offers full text of many resource including full text of webpages and other documents on the web (.pdf, .doc, .xls, blog posts, wiki pages, etc.).

Best for: All around searches for just about anything general and a good second-line search engine. …

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