Whenever a product establishes itself as the dominant force in its particular market, people will be on the lookout for the next product or organization to push it off the top of the heap. It's the classic David versus Goliath story -- even if the Goliath is a product everyone likes. In the technology industry, it's not unusual for journalists and bloggers to refer to the upcoming product as a killer.
The technology blogosphere is filled with discussions about various killers. There are Apple iPhone killers -- the Palm Pre and HTC G1 both made that list. Then there are the various operating systems said to be Windows killers. But there's one Web Goliath that seems to collect more Davids than any other: Google.
Google began as a project headed by Stanford graduate students Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Their goal was to create the most powerful, accurate and comprehensive search engine on the Web. Their hard work paid off -- today, many people refer to the act of performing a Web search as "googling."
As the company grows, so too do the aspirations of the people behind Google. The company's mission is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" [source: Google]. It's telling that the mission doesn't specify online information -- Google's mission extends beyond the boundaries of the Web.
But Google isn't the only search engine game in town. Several companies and developers have created Web search tools. Some have even admitted to setting their sights on Google. Others say they're just trying to create a product that works well. And a few claim that their work isn't meant to compete with Google at all. We'll look at five Web products that journalists have described as Google killers.
The Web 2.0 era has introduced dozens of new terms and phrases into the technology industry. One of the terms that has had a huge impact on the way people use the Web is wiki. A wiki is a site that uses a special kind of software that makes it easy for people to create and edit collaborative Web pages.
The most famous wiki on the Web is Wikipedia, the collaborative encyclopedia. One of the co-founders of Wikipedia is Jimmy Wales. Wales saw the success of collaborative work on the Web -- often called crowdsourcing -- and decided to apply that approach to search. That's how Wikia Search was born.
Wales hoped to create a search engine that harnessed the power of collaboration to produce the best, most relevant search results on the Web. Ideally, the collaborative process would be transparent and it would be hard for companies to game the system. Any registered user would be able to see who had made changes to search results pages and intervene if necessary.
In March 2009, Wales announced that his company was discontinuing the Wikia Search project indefinitely. The economic recession had hit the tech industry hard. As a result, there just wasn't enough money in the budget to support the development of Wikia Search. But we may still see the search engine resurface in the future.
In the summer of 2008, a new search engine emerged onto the scene and began to make headlines. Headed by Web veterans -- including former Google employees -- this new search engine seemed poised to take on Google in a head-to-head competition. The engine's name was Cuil -- pronounced "cool."
The launch of Cuil wasn't exactly an example of smooth sailing. Rafe Needleman of CNET said that it launched in a "blaze of glory" followed by a collapse in a "ball of flames" [source: CNET]. The problem was that, despite claims that Cuil would search far more sites than Google or Microsoft, results came back incomplete or just plain wrong.
Cuil took a different approach to searching and ranking Web sites. Google's strategy is to search sites for keywords and then rank the sites based upon popularity. The more popular a Web site is, the higher it will rank on a Google results page. The philosophy behind this approach is pretty simple: If a lot of people link to a page, it must be pretty good.
Cuil attempted to rank pages not based upon popularity but by relevance. The search engine crawled through Web pages looking for keywords and searching for context. It looked not just for the phrase or word you searched for but also the rest of the content on the page. Theoretically, you should have received results that are most relevant to your query.
The problem was that Cuil didn't quite live up to user expectations when it launched. In fact, the site closed for business on Sept. 17, 2010 [source: Duan].
Sometimes tech journalists will call a new service a Google killer even when it's not a search engine. That's the case with Wolfram|Alpha. It's easy to confuse Wolfram|Alpha with a search engine. It has a field into which you type a query and it searches its database for answers. But that's where the similarity ends.
Search engines provide users links to Web sites that presumably hold information the user wants. Wolfram|Alpha consults an enormous database to bring data directly to the user. You won't receive a list of links when you execute a query on Wolfram|Alpha. Instead, you'll be greeted with charts and graphs populated with data related to the keywords you entered.
This makes Wolfram|Alpha a very powerful research tool. Wolfram|Alpha employees vet all the information included in the database. They pull data from established and accepted resources. You can use Wolfram|Alpha to compare two subjects within the same category. Want to see if a Big Mac is healthier than a Whopper? Use Wolfram|Alpha to compare the nutritional information.
Because Wolfram|Alpha pulls back data rather than links, it's not in direct competition with Google. You should use Wolfram|Alpha if you need to know information about a specific concept. You should use Google if you want to read the latest news on the subject, find a product review or just browse.
Out of all of Google's potential rivals, one stands above all others: Microsoft. The software giant has a long history of dominating the computer marketplace. Almost everyone who has ever used a computer is familiar with the Windows operating system. Then there's Microsoft Office, a suite of productivity software that's very popular in the corporate world. As Google tries to edge into Microsoft's territory with products like Google Docs, Microsoft is doing the same thing to Google through search.
Microsoft has offered Web search engines under several names. The latest incarnation is called Bing. Bing has a snazzy interface and a simple navigation menu. You can search for Web site results, images, video, news and more. While Google search offers similar services, Bing's presentation has more style.
Microsoft has included other features within its search engine, too. Need to find a cheap airline fare? You can use Bing to search for ticket prices and the status of flights. Want to find out how many calories you consumed when you wolfed down that hot dog? You can use Bing to find out.
Bing enjoyed a big spike in user activity shortly after it debuted. Journalists remarked on the search result quality, particularly for images and videos. But later reports suggested that Bing's surge in popularity was short-lived. It appears that users just need search to be "good enough" without any of the bells and whistles you find in Bing. Could Bing bounce back and take Google's search throne?
Last on our list is Twitter Search. Twitter is the messaging service that spans across cell phones and the Web. Users can send messages of up to 140 characters in length to a network of followers. They can also reply to messages publicly or send direct messages to their correspondent. Twitter messages -- or tweets -- show up in a user's Twitter account chronologically. In general, newer tweets are at the top of the list. But there are dozens of different applications for computers and phones that can arrange tweets in different ways.
One of the more useful Twitter applications is Twitter Search. Type a keyword into Twitter Search right from the Twitter home page and you'll see the most recent public tweets that contain that keyword. You can take the pulse of the Twitter audience instantly. A quick glance at the time stamp on each tweet tells you if the topic you're searching for is generating a lot of interest or is dead in the water.
Twitter users have adapted their behaviors to make Twitter Search more useful. For example, the hashtag is a way to designate a term in your tweet. It consists of a # symbol followed by a keyword. Why use a hashtag? By searching for a term with a hashtag on it, you're more likely to pull up tweets that are relevant to your interests. Otherwise, you'll get a search results page containing every tweet that includes your keyword. If the keyword is a common term, you may have to sort through dozens of irrelevant messages before you find one that applies to your search.
Is Twitter Search a threat to Google? Well, it gives the user an instant glance at topics of interest. And Twitter Search results update as you plow through them, while Google search results take more time to update. But Twitter limits messages to 140 characters in length. Most of the time, you'll find more helpful information using Google. Exceptions include breaking news or tweets that contain links to sites that Google has yet to index.
There are lots of useful search engine tools on the Internet. Some of them even rival Google -- there might even be a few that are arguably better at returning searches than Google. But it looks like it's going to take more than a good search results page to topple this Goliath.
Learn more about Web services by following the links on the next page.
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- Bing. (July 20, 2009) http://www.bing.com
- Cuil. (July 20, 2009) http://www.cuil.com
- Duan, Mary. "Cuil search engine goes out quietly." Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal. Sept. 20, 2010. (Sept. 30, 2010)http://www.bizjournals.com/sanjose/stories/2010/09/20/daily14.html
- Google. (July 20, 2009) http://www.google.com
- Krazit, Tom. "Bing's first month produces small share gain." CNET. July 1, 2009. (July 21, 2009) http://news.cnet.com/8301-17939_109-10277113-2.html
- Needleman, Rafe. "Cuil shows us how not to launch a search engine." CNET. July 28, 2008. (July 20, 2009) http://news.cnet.com/cuil-shows-us-how-not-to-launch-a-search-engine/
- Needleman, Rafe. "Wales giving up on Wikia Search." CNET. March 31, 2009. (July 20, 2009) http://news.cnet.com/8301-17939_109-10207896-2.html
- Schartz, Eric Hal. "Bing! Google's Death Knell?" Xconomy. May 28, 2009. (July 20, 2009) http://www.xconomy.com/seattle/2009/05/28/bing-googles-death-knell/
- Schonfeld, Erick. "Jimmy Wales Deadpools Wikia Search." CNET. March 31, 2009. (July 20, 2009) http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/03/31/jimmy-wales-deadpools-wikia-search/
- Stone, Biz. "Twitter Search for Everyone!" Twitter Blog. April 30, 2009. (July 21, 2009) http://blog.twitter.com/2009/04/twitter-search-for-everyone.html
- Talbot, David. "Wolfram Alpha and Google Face Off." Technology Review. May 5, 2009. (July 21, 2009) http://www.technologyreview.com/web/22585/
- Twitter Search. (July 20, 2009) http://search.twitter.com
- Wolfram Alpha. (July 20, 2009) http://www.wolframalpha.com
- Yen, Yi-Wyn. "Cuil not a Google killer -- yet." Fortune. July 28, 2008. (July 21, 2009) http://techland.blogs.fortune.cnn.com/2008/07/28/cuil-not-a-google-killer-yet/