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An alternative to Google search?

Maggie Shiels | 13:32 UK time, Monday, 1 November 2010

Google has long been the kingpin of search but every so often some start-up comes along thinking it can unseat the behemoth.

One very public contender was Cuil which was made up of former Google engineers.

It launched to great fanfare and claimed to do search better than Google. The company exited "stealth mode" in 2008 but two years later bit the dust.

Cuil's demise was also very public here in Silicon Valley and serves as a warning to another entrant, Blekko.

"We don't expect to put Google out of business and that is not our goal. That is not going to happen," Mike Markson, co-founder and vice president of marketing told the BBC.

Of Google and its closest rivals, he said: "They are here, they have 85% of the market but that doesn't mean to say there isn't room out there [for] someone who has a differentiated product and who approaches search in a novel way."

Rich Skrenta and Mike Markson

 

Blekko chief executive and co-founder Rich Skrenta added: "We are fans of both Google and [Microsoft search engine] Bing and the fact that Bing has actually made strides in growing its market share with their investment we find encouraging.

"This shows that people are willing to try another search engine and that it's not just all these inert people are going to stick with their Google habit."

Mr Markson chimed in: "Our goal is to get a good audience that likes what we are doing, likes our approach to search and we think our beta proves they will."

So what is this new approach and how does it differ from Google and its famous 10 blue links?

Type your query in the Blekko search box and three billion web pages, deemed worthwhile through a mix of algorithms and human input, will be scanned through. It then organises these lists around a "slashtag"; the company's tagline is "Slash the web".

The aim is to ensure relevant results and weed out spam results and content created by companies like Demand Media - this is where people are paid to write articles around popular topics so that they rise to the top of search results.

Screengrab of Blekko homepage

 

Blekko said that, for example, searching "cure for headaches" on its search engine will return results from the best quality sites in the health category, like the National Institute of Health - in contrast to the results on Google's first page which range from WikiHow to Yahoo Answers.

Blekko is starting small and, like Bing, offering deep dives in seven subject areas where it thinks it can do a better job than Google: health, recipes, autos, hotels, song lyrics, personal finance and colleges. Blekko's pitch is that there is a greater level of human involvement in its search process.

"An algorithm can't tell the difference between two articles, both of which are written by humans but one of which is on, say, MayoClinic.com and another written for 50 cents to have it put on eHow.com," said Mr Skrenta.

"They both look like medical information to an algorithm but one is just a cut-and-paste job and the other high-quality material. Looking at what the trend is, we see that this is accelerating to a point where we are going to [see] a web with a trillion URLs.

"Look at what happened to e-mail traffic where 95% is all spam. What happens when 95% of every URL on the web is spam? At that point an algorithm can't tell the difference between the good content and the bad content.

"The only way to fix this is to bring back large-scale human curation to search combined with strong algorithms. You have to put people into the mix," said Mr Skrenta.

Mr Skrenta said the initial goal is to identify the 50 best sites for the top 100,000 search categories. Its use of volunteers to identify those sites is modelled on Wikipedia.

"Crowdsourcing is the only way we will be able to allow search to scale to the ever-growing web," said Mr Skrenta.

Over the past few months, users in a private beta have created more than 3,000 collections of sites that users can search through by typing a "slashtag" and topic next to their search query.

As Blekko goes worldwide on Monday, Mr Skrenta has his eyes set on becoming the third search engine: "This is only the beginning for us. We are only getting started."

Blekko has raised $24m since its founding in 2007. Mr Skrenta has earned his stripes in organising content and information on the internet. In the 1990s, he co-founded NewHoo, a human-edited web directory that was later sold to Netscape and renamed the Open Directory Project.

The company's name comes from Mr Skrenta, who called his personal computer in college "Blekko".

So what does Google think? The company says: "Having great competitors is a huge benefit to us and everyone in the search space - it makes us all work harder, and at the end of the day everyone benefits from that."

PS: Mr Skrenta is a man with a very interesting background.

He was one of those young students who pushed the boundaries by messing about with code. This resulted in the creation of the Elk Cloner virus that infected Apple II machines. It is widely agreed to be the first large-scale self-spreading personal-computer virus.

Comments

  • 1. At 4:52pm on 01 Nov 2010, stirling222 wrote:

    Google appear to be doing a smashing job of alienating their users on their own. Nothing lasts forever.

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  • 2. At 00:15am on 02 Nov 2010, Graphis wrote:

    A good idea. The problem with all search engines, not just Google, is their lack of discrimination, and the lack of being able to refine a search to get precisely what you want. Just as an example, a week ago I wanted to search for a mobile: not a phone, but the dangly thing that hangs from a child's bedroom ceiling. But you try typing "mobile", even "child's mobile", into a search engine! The search engine that succeeds in this kind of differentiation will win world domination. I doubt it will be Blekko though, even if they are successful: Google will just buy them.

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  • 3. At 08:22am on 02 Nov 2010, brightengineer wrote:

    @2 I found with google, to get exactly what you want, you need to learn the operators and use literal strings quite a bit to find *exactly* what it is you are looking for.

    Back on topic, this is an interesting idea, and may be tempted to try it out for a few days as well just to see how it gets on.

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  • 4. At 09:06am on 02 Nov 2010, Vincent wrote:

    @2 (Graphis)
    To be fair, even a human would have trouble understanding what you wanted to search for if all you said was "Mobile" or "Child's Mobile" right?

    So until any search engine comes up with a way to read our minds, try typing more specific questions. In your case "bedroom ceiling mobile" gives very accurate results.

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  • 5. At 12:16pm on 02 Nov 2010, jr4412 wrote:

    Maggie Shiels.

    Mike Markson is spot on ("..they have 85% of the market but that doesn't mean to say there isn't room out there [for] someone who has a differentiated product.."), though Google is pretty good for most needs, using more than one search engine usually pays off.

    comments #3 and #4 highlight another aspect of this -- you cannot hope to find what you're looking for unless you choose adequate search terms, and are familiar with the tool(s).

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  • 6. At 1:02pm on 02 Nov 2010, danensis wrote:

    I research my family history, and one of my ancestors is called MAYOR. Try doing a search which will produce people called MAYOR, rather than people who are a mayor. That's the kind of discrimination a good search engine needs, contextual and semantic searching.

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  • 7. At 4:31pm on 02 Nov 2010, Stuart wrote:

    Yeah... just look at all the e-mail spam. Oh, right, Google Mail filters it all out and I haven't had a problem for *years*. The natural progression will be that Google will do the same (or similar) for its search results too, hooked in with page rank (which is an attempt to do the same).

    If Google do that next week, where would that leave Blekko?

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  • 8. At 5:17pm on 02 Nov 2010, Laurence wrote:

    @2: Even simpler to search for, just type in hanging mobile and you get the results you're after. Search engines aren't mind readers so they need a little help to get you the results you want.

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  • 9. At 5:25pm on 02 Nov 2010, Laurence wrote:

    @6: You're not likely to find specific people by searching for mayor. You could try mayor family or mayor family tree or mayor genealogy or something similar to tell the search engine what exactly you are looking for. But just think how many people called Mayor there are! It's like typing in car and hoping to find the one you used to own years ago.

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  • 10. At 9:16pm on 02 Nov 2010, SewerSide wrote:

    Mr Markson chimed in: "Our goal is to get a good audience that likes what we are doing, likes our approach to search and we think our beta proves they will."

    And then presumably hope one of the larger companies buys out the company and the IP?

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  • 11. At 4:23pm on 03 Nov 2010, Joe Wright wrote:

    @2 Graphis

    I know what you mean. In my babies book it says "Child's first mobile". I nearly wrote iPhone down.

    Most search engines allow you to remove terms by pre-pending a minus sign like: mobile -phone

    To further improve your search results you could add some of the terms you mentioned like "ceiling" or "baby" or "cot", which gives you good results for: ceiling mobile -phone

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  • 12. At 8:50pm on 03 Nov 2010, Graphis wrote:

    Thanks for the tips! You learn something new every day:)

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  • 13. At 8:03pm on 06 Nov 2010, Andy in Highland Perthshire wrote:

    I'm currently studying for a Masters degree that includes Information Studies and one of the modules is very much centred on how to help people get the best set of search results. I haven't looked at Blekko yet but Google (and most other search engines) provide users with a huge array of tools to improve their searches, the problem being that people don't know about them. I suggest that you look around the search engine site to see what it offers. For instance, in Google try clicking on More and then Even More. If you want to find peer-reviewed articles then use Google Scholar or similar. And click on Advanced Search then look at the Tips to find out how to use Boolean operators to limit your searches.

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  • 14. At 11:10am on 07 Nov 2010, Willie Coupe wrote:

    It would be nice to have Tick and Cross symbols next to each search result that could optionally be clicked on, a bit like the 21 people 'like this' methodology - these results, admittedly similarly open to group distortion campaigns, could be included in the search algorithm. If most people tick the 3rd search result as giving what they wanted maybe it should be higher.

    When Croatia came 3rd in the World Cup FIFA claimed it was their first one. I think Germany played a notional 'qualifier' against a concocted Croatian team in the 1930s (in the early days the concept of qualifiers had yet to be officially adopted) but could find nothing on it in the search results, so would like to have told the search engine that it didn't help me!

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  • 15. At 10:49am on 08 Nov 2010, DibbySpot wrote:

    I tried it and like it - cleaner interface than google - more relevant search responses.

    Good luck guys

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