Weeds In Google's Garden?

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Google may be the undisputed leader when it comes to Internet search but it now has a lot of company including the biggest PC company, Microsoft.

Google, now a $52 billion company after going public last year, has shown that searching can be extremely popular as long as you do it in a way that's fast and non-intrusive and maintain boundaries between advertising and search results. Since establishing itself as the de facto Internet search engine, the company branched out into other areas, including Microsoft's turf: e-mail and helping PC users find files on their desktop.

Now it's Microsoft's turn to fight back. The company official launched its new MSN Search engine (www.msn.com) that not only searches the web, but also looks for news, images, music and encyclopedia and dictionary results from Microsoft Encarta. For Windows users, the service can also search your desktop via optional software that you download.

I tried the new MSN search and, while it is an improvement, it's nothing revolutionary. Google needs to keep innovating to stay on top but, in the short run, they have little to worry about from Microsoft. The long run is a different story. Microsoft is patient and tenacious and now that it's committed to search it will spend millions improving it and, of course, promoting it.

In addition to MSN, there are some others that are trying to up the ante on search. A9.com, a subsidiary of online retailer Amazon.com, just updated its yellow pages search engine to include photographs of businesses and neighborhoods where the businesses are located.

A9.com claims to have more than 20 million photographs of businesses and surroundings in ten cities: Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Chicago, New York, Denver, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Oregon and San Francisco Bay Area. They created a database of photos by driving around in trucks taking pictures of storefronts and then integrating the photos with their search engine.

Photos on yellow pages results is a bit of a gimmick but it can be useful in some situations, such as getting a sense of how a restaurant looks and what's around it. You can click on an arrow to "walk up and down the block" to see what the business's surroundings look like. It's not nearly as good as checking it out in person, but you do get a bit of a sense of what you might be walking into.

I did discover a bit of a glitch. Searching for restaurants in my town - Palo Alto, Calif. - I wound up with pictures of private homes in a residential neighborhood instead of storefronts in the business district.

Another problem is that 20 million photographs just aren't enough. When looking for restaurants in New York City, the vast majority of the ones I found did not have photos. A sketchy feature on a search engine more or less defeats its purpose.

Still, the concept is interesting: provide users with visual information. If they can vastly increase their supply of pictures and fix the occasional glitch, I would see myself using it on some occasions. But even then, my use of the phrase "some occasions" points to part of the problem. Like millions of others, I use Google several times a day - not just on rare occasions. It's hard to compete with something that ubiquitous.

Answers.com is a very interesting search site run by a small Israeli company called GuruNet. Unlike Google, MSN and other web search engines, Answers.com is not a general purpose web search engine but a reference tools that searches through credible reference sources including the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, American Heritage Dictionary, Who2.com (biographies of famous people), Computer Desktop Encyclopedia and numerous other databases.

It also references Wikipedia, which can best be described as an "open source" encyclopedia that can be edited by anyone. In some cases, Answers.com refers you to Google news. Like Google, Answers.com is free and advertiser supported. The ads show up on the side of the page so they don't get in your face.

In addition to searching the web and online reference tools, people also need a tool to search their own hard drives. Modern PCs typically come with 80 or more gigabytes of storage - enough for tens of thousands of files - so it's easy to find yourself overwhelmed with data yet devoid of the information you actually need. What's more, we're getting an increasing amount of information by e-mail and the leading e-mail programs - Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express - have very slow search functions.

Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and numerous other companies have come to the rescue with desktop search products that you can download and use for free. All of these programs are very quick, even if you have an enormous amount of data. They're fast because they first create an index of your drive and search through that. As you add more to your drive, the index is updated and because they're looking at an index rather than the files themselves, the process is always surprisingly fast.

Apple, by the way, is including a desktop search tool called Spotlight in "Tiger," its soon-to-be released new operating system for the Macintosh. In the mean time, Mac users can download a beta version of Blinkx, an interesting search program that I'll describe later.

I got generally good results from both the Google and Yahoo! desktop search engines, but I was most impressed with a little known free product calls Copernic Desktop Search from Copernic Technologies (www.copernic.com/).

In addition to letting you search the web, this Windows program also looks through your e-mail, music, pictures, contacts, web bookmarks, web history and just about anything else that might be stored within a file on your drive. In that way, it's similar to Google and Yahoo! but I found it to be a bit less intrusive than those other programs which would slow down my computer occasionally. I also find it very easy to use and, considering that it's free, it's worth checking out.

With any desktop search engine, you have to let it run for a few hours to index your entire hard drive, so don't judge Copernic or any other desktop search program until you've given it some time to complete its index. Once it has completed indexing the drive, it will update itself in real time as you work.

Another contender worth looking at is Blinkx (www.blinkx.com) for both Windows and Macintosh. Blinkx allows you to search through PDF files, PowerPoint presentations, e-mail, Microsoft Word and many other file formats as well as web sites, web-based news sites and blogs.

The service also lets you search for video clips from selected TV sources including ABC, BBC News, CBS, CNN, NBC and others. I used it to search for my own name and was shocked to find old video clips from TV shows I was on years ago, some of which I would just as soon have had fade into oblivion.

But there lies the nature of search. Thanks to search, everything is now forever. We may live in a world of newsbytes and attention deficit disorder, but if you post it and if a search engine finds it, they will come - if not now, then maybe later.

By Larry Magid