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May 2002

Upstarts Set Stage For Search Engine Showdown

By Robert J. Ambrogi

A good search engine is a lawyer's most useful Internet tool. While the reigning best of breed is Google, a handful of upstarts are laying claim to the throne.

Sheer breadth is a major factor in Google's search superiority. It is home to the largest Web archive by far, indexing more than 3 billion Web documents. Its closest competitor in size claims barely half that many. To search this many documents by hand, Google points out, would take nearly 6,000 years.

With so many documents in its collection, Google would be of little use if it could not display search results ranked by their relevance to the query. Here again, Google excels, thanks to its so-called Page Rank technology. Simply put, Google interprets a link to a Web page as a kind of vote for its quality cast from among the Internet's democratic masses. The more sites that link to a page, Google presumes, the more valuable it must be.

There is more. Google Groups is a complete archive of discussions from Usenet - the Internet's original bulletin board - going back to 1981, the year Usenet began. Google Image Search claims to be the largest image archive on the Web. Need a medical illustration? Try here.

The Challengers

So who are these upstarts and what makes them think they can take on Google?

Among the worthiest of the challengers is Teoma, launched April 2. Although its collection of documents is not as large as Google's, Teoma aims to deliver an even higher degree of relevance in its search results. Like Google, it ranks the relevance of pages through a sort of Web popularity contest. But while Google draws votes from all the Web, Teoma takes each page to a jury of its peers. That is, it first identifies other sites on the same topic, then analyzes how often those sites link to the page.
Teoma calls this "Subject-Specific Popularity." The idea is this: If you want to know the best Web sites for auto enthusiasts, you will do better by polling the sites of other auto enthusiasts than you will do by polling the Internet at large. This makes sense for lawyers. Of all the law-related sites on the Web, the best ones for lawyers are likely to be the ones that lawyers as a group most often link to, as opposed to those that non-lawyers find useful.

Teoma touts two other features: "Refine" and "Resources," both of which appear onscreen to the right of the search results. The Refine feature organizes query results into what Teoma calls "naturally occurring communities." Search "Labor Relations," for example, and Teoma will suggest the following categories by which you can refine the search results: Industrial Relations, Employment Relations, University Labor, Labor Law, Labor New, Labor Relations Board, Management Relations and Supreme Court Collections.

The Resources feature provides jumping off points to link collections elsewhere on the Web having to do with the query topic. The same "Labor Relations" search yielded links to resources such as the Institute of Industrial Relations Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

Clever and Wise

Another upstart, Vivisimo, takes its name from the Spanish word for "clever." True to its name, it is not really a search engine at all, in that that it does not crawl or index the Web. Rather, it is a software program that calls on other search engines, extracts the relevant information, and then organizes the results into a clear and hierarchical folder structure, much like the folders one would find in a Windows directory.

Perform a search here and your results appear in the center of your screen as they would elsewhere. But to the left is a group of folders and subfolders into which Vivisimo has almost instantly organized the search results. The same "Labor Relations" search resulted in 22 top-level folders with names such as Industrial Relations, Human Resources, Labor Relations Board, Labor Studies and Laws. Click on Industrial Relations, and 10 subfolders appear, including Research, Labor Laws and Department of Labor. The folders make it easier to zero in on the sites whose topics mostly closely match your query.

Last but not least, there is WiseNut, which, like Vivisimo, organizes search results into categories. These categories, which appear in what the site calls its "WiseGuide," are generated on the fly using key words drawn from search results.

My search for "Labor Relations" on WiseNut yields three main categories - Labor Relations, Industrial Relations and Other - and another eight subcategories, including Labor Relations Board, Law and Labor Relations and Employee Labor Relations.

WiseNut is among the larger search engines in the size of its database, boasting some 1.5 billion documents. It includes one feature that no other search site has: Sneak-A-Peak. When you search, each listed result includes the Sneak-A-Peak button. Click it and the listed site appears in a small window directly on the search results page, eliminating the need to repeatedly hit your browser's Back button as you view results.

So which of these sites stands out at the showdown?

If we are to judge by sheer numbers, Google wins. Here are the numbers of matches each site returned for the search "Labor Relations":
  • Google: 1,370,000.
  • Teoma: 500,000.
  • WiseNut: 104,053.
  • Vivisimo: 176 
All four returned similar results at the top - and therefore most relevant - of their results lists. All but WiseNut had the National Labor Relations Board first; WiseNut had it second. All four had Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations within their top three. The strangest result was on Vivisimo, which had as its sixth most relevant site a Dutch maker of wooden shoes.

While Google's eminence appears secure, Teoma, with its refinement suggestions and resource collections, and WiseNut, with its large archive and friendly features, are useful alternatives for lawyers. Vivisimo's folders are appealing, but its results were disappointing.

Robert J. Ambrogi, rambrogi@amlaw.com, is author of the book, "The Essential Guide to the Best (and Worst) Legal Sites on the Web," available at LawCatalog.com, and editorial director of the National Law Journal.

© 2005 Robert J. Ambrogi.