There’s a big case coming up tomorrow. But you misplaced your expert’s number. You need directions to a courthouse several counties away. And a colleague mentioned something about a similar case. You need to do some last-minute research. Do you flip frantically through the Yellow Pages, wrestle with the decade-old state map and speed to the nearest law library? Of course not. You sit at your computer and pull up Google. Done, done and done!
In today’s busy world, Google certainly has become the go-to site for Internet searching. It’s so ingrained into popular culture that its brand name has even been adapted into a verb.
That’s right — people don’t “search the Web” for a topic anymore — they “Google” it.
What makes Google so popular? Behind its notoriously clean interface lies highly advanced search technology and one of the largest databases of Web pages in existence. Google’s powerful empire also boasts of e-mail, maps, blogs, images and videos, to name a few.
While Google’s complex PageRank algorithm is shrouded in mystery, the basis of how search engines operate is quite simple.
Programs called “spiders” crawl through the Web, following each link they encounter and analyzing the contents of each corresponding page. Along with standard Web pages, spiders can search blogs, wikis, forums and even online PDF documents.
Pages are “ranked” based on popularity and relevance. The more incoming links there are to a page, the higher up it appears in related search queries. All of this information is stored in a database. So when you do a search, you’re accessing a search engine’s collection of data, not the Web itself.
Google and the other three search engine frontrunners — Yahoo!, Live (MSN) and Ask — operate in a relatively similar manner. Just keep in mind that different search engines will return a different set of results. An item ranked number two by Google may not even appear on the first results page on a Yahoo! search.
The reason? Besides using different ranking algorithms, some search engines allow Web site owners to pay to have their listings ranked higher. While some engines feature these in a separate advertising column, others will integrate the paid links into their overall results.
If this makes you question the reliability of Internet searches, there are alternatives to Google and other mainstream search engines.
Thousands of them, in fact.
But are these Google wannabes just a dime a dozen? Or are their technologies so unique and innovative that they may one day dethrone the king of search engines?
Here are some alternatives to “Googling” and the value they could add to your Internet research.
With a Web that’s deep and ever changing, it’s impossible for one search engine alone to claim it has the most complete collection of material. But how do we compare results from different engines without having to open multiple pages?
Metasearch sites combine multiple search engine databases into one, giving searchers more comprehensive and potentially more accurate results.
And if you’re curious which search engine provided the link, most metasearch results will tell you. Just keep in mind that some high-ranking links could be paid ads.
Like metasearches, cluster searches scour multiple search engines, combine the results, and generate a list based on comparative ranking.
Type “lawyer” into the search box and you will get the standard top results for the search term. But in addition, the site will help you narrow your search by providing a list of related categories (clusters) such as criminal, advice, directory, etc.
These two dimensional search results can help you find results that may have otherwise been buried deep in the ranked lists. You might also discover unexpected relationships to your topic.
KartOO is unique in that the links between your search term and its related content are displayed visually (picture a brainstorming web).
If you’re looking for a smarter search engine with page summaries that make sense, Factbites returns three relevant, complete sentences for every search result. The search engine ranks its hits by the quantity of factual information rather than by who has the most links.
And if you’re unsure whether the sites that appear on your search are safe, GoLexa analyzes each Web page it pulls up. Before you click through to an unknown site, you have the option to view a snapshot of the home page, a safety analysis, a search engine optimization ranking and server/registry data.
Along the lines of Internet safety, you may not be aware that most search engines record your search terms, the time of your visit, the links you choose, your IP address and your User ID cookies. Ixquick is a metasearch engine that allows you to search some of the most popular engines without storing your personal information or browsing habits in a permanent database.
The ‘Invisible’ Web
While doing online research, be aware that not everything on the Web is searchable through Google or any other search engine. In fact, research suggests that Google only taps into about 1 percent of what is actually out there on the Web.
Pages that search engines cannot access — the “invisible” or “deep” Web — belong to separate databases. These could be part of a library catalog, a collection of journal articles and newspaper archives or any content that’s locked behind a password wall.
Additionally, Web site owners can choose to exclude pages from search engines by adding certain metatags to their coding.
And if a page doesn’t have a link to it from elsewhere on the Web, a search engine won’t be able to find it.
Currently, the only way to access this hidden stash of information is to go directly to the source.
Although you may be required to have access to a direct link, some databases (but not the information contained within) can be found through search engines. Type in “legal database,” for example, and sites such as Lexis and Westlaw will appear in your results.
Just remember, access to certain databases may require a fee.