Fine-Tuned Engines

By Toto, Christian | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 18, 2001 | Go to article overview

Fine-Tuned Engines


Toto, Christian, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Byline: Christian Toto

Finding something on the World Wide Web should be like finding a needle in a haystack, given the Web's seemingly endless array of virtual pathways.

The search is fairly easy, however. Today's search engines, from bare-bone machines such as Google.com to more venerable Web portals such as Yahoo.com, give Web surfers a significant boost toward finding exactly what they want online.

It wasn`t always this way.

In the Web's earlier days, the mid-1990s, Web "portal" sites - pages that offer searches, news, online chats and other services - were where most Internet dwellers flocked for search purposes. Portals, Web sites that users could make their home page when they started up their Internet connections, were one-stop destinations that experts once thought would attract surfers and advertising revenues alike for years to come.

Those rudimentary search engines often examined Web pages by looking for key words buried within the pages. Search technology employed by portals such as Excite.com and Lycos.com also scanned for "meta-tags," words buried in a page's HTML (hypertext markup language) coding, the language that creates the pages.

Jupiter Media Metrix Vice President Ross Rubin says such portals found that although the search technology attracted consumers, it also quickly sent them away without retaining them or persuading them to use a portal's other services. The content wasn't compelling enough to detain them, so they simply used the search engine and left, leaving portals with no revenue.

"Search has become a specialized business," says Mr. Rubin, whose New York-based company measures Web pages viewed and offers Internet consulting work. "It returned to its roots. It's more of a technological business."

* * *

Search engines typically crawl the Web looking for pages to add to their databases, or indexes. Then they conduct their future searches from this copious collection of sites.

The owners of some sites take a hands-on approach and register their sites with various engines to make sure they make their presence felt.

Then, when a person goes to a search engine and punches in a key phrase or word, the engine scans its indexes to find relevant matches.

Today, many sites with a search capacity, such as AOL.com, rely on outside companies to supply the search technology. Google, a Mountain View, Calif., company that runs one of the Web's most visited search-only sites, and Inktomi, a Foster City, Calif., company, license such technology. The latter firm supplies search help for Msn.com and Hotbot.com.

Mr. Rubin says consumers are more satisfied with Internet searches than in the past.

"Google has done a much better job than anything before it," he says.

Google, which began as a research project at Stanford University in the mid-1990s, is ranked the 15th-most-visited site by Jupiter Media Metrix, making it the highest-ranked search-only Web site. Sites run by AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo are the most visited pages, respectively.

Google searches the Web via key words inside Web pages, as other search engines do, but also through link analysis.

If Page A is linked to Page B, it considers such a link a vote by Page A for Page B. If a page links to another, that is like saying the first page considers the other page worthy of its, and the surfer's, attention. The more such votes a page gets, the higher it appears on the search results pages.

Northernlight.com, another search-only site, also uses link analysis.

Google.com spokeswoman Eileen Rodriguez says the users of search engines look for, in order: ease of use, relevant search results and speed when they punch in their search terms. She adds that her company's research shows that users go online for searches more than for any other activity, save using e-mail. …

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