If Google had a dollar for every competitor that was hyped to defeat it, the search giant would be worth a hundred billion. And well, it is. Live Search, Cuil, Mahalo, whatever—Google only feels luckier as the field grows.
But two more search engines emerged recently that seem to believe that to penetrate the search market, you don't have to reinvent the concept; you just need to make improvements where an unwieldier competitor can't.
The first is DuckDuckGo, brainchild of MIT grad Gabriel Weinberg. The Pennsylvania-based search startup boasts "less garbage" than the big search engines, and on that front, it delivers: since DuckDuckGo doesn't have an advertising empire to perpetuate, its results pages are clean and simple. It's also better at avoiding on dead-end links than bigger search engines.
"Some people don't believe me when I say that Google's results are bad," says Weinberg, who self-funds the search engine thanks to the sale of an earlier venture. "But I find there are incredible amounts of spam—sites just created with ads and no content."
DuckDuckGo also does a few clever things with your query. Search, say, FastCompany Magazine and you'll get our homepage up top, clearly marked as the "Official Site" without any other snippets or titles. DuckDuckGo also cleverly parses your search query into "category" terms, so that you can search more deeply within one term or another using a simple drop-down menu.
Still, for DuckDuckGo, the proof is in the results, and the results are good. Out of about 30 search queries, the vast majority returned very pertinent results, some of which even arrived via the site's "zero-click" preview pane. Search a term that is popular (say, "Chicago Bulls") and DuckDuckGo will give you an image, Wikipedia intro, and related links outright. And this isn't accomplished by a team of editors either. "We've gone out and found entries in about a hundred other human-powered sites that are policed for spam," explains Weinberg. "We use their APIs and extract the info."
But is it more useful than Google? Depends on what you're doing. Side-by-side, DuckDuckGo's results seemed deeper than Google's on many queries, finding stuff that was surprisingly pertinent but not necessarily new; Google's algorithms seemed preoccupied with recency over relevancy, in comparison. (Though, this could also be because Google's crawler operates faster, and has simply indexed more recent material.)
Yet Google can leverage its many properties (YouTube, Maps) to provide entire swaths of search that DuckDuckGo can't touch. Search "New York to Chicago" on Google, and you get flight times, driving directions, maps, and ticketing links. Do the same on DDG, and the first result is for Chicago the Musical, followed by a handful of travel sites and a story about pie fighting from Lonely Planet.
At the least, DDG is a good alternative for kids, Web newbies, and hippies who simply don't want the clutter and flutter of Google's thousands of lines of text per page. At its best, it could be a useful cross-reference tool, or a standalone option for quick searches; give it a shot next time you research something, and you might be surprised at how incisive its results can be.
And if it's not clutter you're sick of, but lack of depth, try Newssift. A creation of the Financial Times Group, publisher of the eponymous newspaper, it caters to business-related searchers that aren't interested in seeing a user-gen video about their search term, or buying a new pair of slippers that the algorithm thinks they might like. No, Newssift is more like the bastard child of Google and LexisNexis: its layout is sober and organized, and its ultra-targeted results give in-depth summaries that cut down on click-and-see searching.
Newssift clearly came from the brains of journalism-minded programmers who are interested in trends, definitions and relationships, not just free-associative keyword searching. To the left of its search results, it displays two pie graphs (yep, pie graphs): one indicates "Sentiment" and the other indicates "Article Sources." That allows users to judge if the topic they've queried—"Yahoo and Microsoft deal," for example—is receiving favorable or unfavorable play in the media. In the second pie graph, you can see whether the disucssion topic you seek occurs mostly in magazines, newspapers, blogs, newswires, TV, radio, or other media.
NewsSift's other proprietary tool is its suggestion organizer, a gray box (as seen above) that lets you stack search terms on top of one another and refine your results by topic, company, place, person or theme. Digging in deeper to each category can allow you to do all sorts of fun stuff, like refine by industry, or use a popular executive's CV as a filtering mechanism. Truly robust and possessed of great fit and finish, Newssift makes me feel as if every one of my searches is an accomplishment, even when I'm just searching for Apple rumors.
Can either DuckDuckGo or NewsSift become the next Google? Probably not. But they both fill in a lot of blanks that Google leaves wide open during searches. If nothing else, at least they might serve as one of your backup search engines.
Related: Search Engine Showdown