Not so very long ago,at the turn of the century, Google went from an obscure start-up to the Web’sdominant search engine. It accomplished this feat in remarkably little time bybeing vastly better than established contenders like AltaVista. And Google hasstayed on top ever since, the beneficiary of both its own never-ending effortsat self-improvement and the fact that humans are creatures of habit. In theU.S., Google currently gets nearly twice as many searches as all of itscompetitors combined.


Over the years,plenty of companies have labored to put a dent in that massive market share.Recently, however, a couple of Google’s rivals — Yahoo! and (née AskJeeves) — have waved white flags. In August, Yahoo! started delivering search results based on Microsoft’sBing.Then last week announced that it would focus on its question-and-answer feature, outsourcing search to an unspecified third party.


I find these developments disheartening, even though I cheerfully admit to being a member ofthe Google-using majority. History keeps showing that enormously successful tech companies grow fat and complacent unless they face real competition. So Iwant the search wars to rage on even if the category has only one true superpower.


That means I’m paying close attention to Microsoft, the last major Google competitor that sees search as a smart investment rather than a fool’s errand. Since relaunching its LiveSearch last year as the more peppily named Bing, it has signed that deal with Yahoo! and pumped resources into improving and promoting its offering. Most important, it has managed to give Bing something few Google alternatives have ever had: a distinct identity.


Whereas Google is famous for a home page that’s mostly white space, Bing’s trademark is a fancy photographic backdrop. Google responds to every query on any subject with a list of links to other sites; Bing uses a “decision engine” that has some features tailored to specific topics, such as travel, health and shopping,and sometimes provides information about those things right on the site rather than suggesting where to look elsewhere. (Its travel section is particularly rich, with features like advice on whether it’s smartest to buy a plane ticket immediately or to wait for prices to drop.) And while Google and Facebook are squabbling, Microsoft has worked with Facebook (of which it owns a small chunk) to let Bing users see recommendations from their friends within search results.


Nimble, inventive and extremely well financed, Bing is the sort of search engine you would invent if your goal was to keep Google on its toes. And Google does seem to be paying attention. After years of making only subtle tweaks to its results pages, it has spent much of 2010 rolling out changes that are impossible to miss. In May,it added a Bing-like left sidebar of options. September brought GoogleInstant, which starts displaying links without waiting for you to finish typing. And instant previews — pop-up thumbnail images that let you peek at pages before you leave the results page — showed up last week.


Google’s single biggest defense against Bing isn’t anything new and splashy,though. It’s the fact that it’s still better at the basic job of responding toqueries with a list of the most relevant sites, ranked in the most logical order. When I search for “Canon S95,” for instance, it’s smart enough to make its top listing a link to Canon’s page for its PowerShot S95 camera. On Bing, that page is the second result — the first one is an obscure site that mentions the S95 only in passing. Gaffes like that leave me using Bing as asupplement to Google rather than a replacement for it.

Google对于Bing所作出的最大规模的回应毫无新意,一点也不吸引人。但是事实上它仍然在搜索结果的相关度,排序的逻辑程度等基本问题上优于其他搜索引擎。比如当我搜索“Canon S95”时,它能够很聪明地把佳能公司关于PowerShot S95的页面放在首位。在Bing上搜索时,该页面排在了第二位,排在第一位的是以前提及过S95的网站页面。诸如此类的失误让我只是把Bing当做Google的补充,而不是首选。

Of course, Microsofthas the wherewithal to go on refining its search engine indefinitely if it chooses. Start-up companies don’t have that luxury, and more than one has proven that targeting Google is a little like opening a hamburger stand with the express goal of shattering the McDonald’s hegemony. (In Silicon Valley, one failed would-be Google killer, Cuil, is practically synonymous with overweening ambition.)


The founders of a newsite called Blekko wisely deny that they’re out to crush Google. But their service — slightly unappetizing name and all — sports the freshest approach of any all-new search engine to come along in quite a while. The big idea behind Blekko, which launched on Halloween, is the slash tag, a keyword you append to your query to restrict the search to a specific list of sites — ones with reputable information about a particular topic, for instance, or those of a particular political bent or specialists in a particular type of content like video.


Searching Blekko for”california /news,” for instance, pulls up different links from thosefound with “california /travel.” Likewise, entering “glenn beck/conservative” or “glenn beck /liberal” will get you wildly varying results. And when you don’t include a slashtag, the engine aims to put the most trustworthy sources up highest on the list. Search for “lungcancer,” for example, and you’ll get links to the National Institute ofHealth, WebMD, and the American Medical Association.

在Blekko里搜索诸如“california/news”(加州/新闻)的词条,会出现不同的链接,其中又会有“california/travel”(加州/旅游)这一的词条。同样地,输入“glenn beck/conservative”(葛林·贝克/保守)或者“glenn beck/liberal”(葛林·贝克/自由)也会出现很多不同的结果。当你没有加入标签的时候,搜索引擎会把最值得信任的搜索结果放在首位。例如搜索“lungcancer”,你会得到美国国立卫生研究院,医学网站,和美国医学会的网站。

The niftiest thingabout slashtags is that they’re not the result of Google-like automation.Instead, Blekko is taking a Wikipedia-style approach, letting its users create and edit tags. The results are still rough — my search results on Blekko aretoo often thick with stale links rather than up-to-the-minute stuff — but the idea is bursting with potential. (I didn’t use Wikipedia a couple of weeksafter it launched in 2001, but I’ll bet it was a tad spotty then too.)


Google may be abehemoth, but its market share is more fragile than you would think. There’s absolutely nothing stopping you from immediately dumping one search engine fora superior competitor — hey, just ask AltaVista. And even if you go back to Google again and again, as most of us do, it’s reassuring to know that alternatives such as Bing and Blekko are out there.



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