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tech.life@school | Joyce Kasman Valenza

Google gains new rivals for top search spot

Remember when all you used was Yahoo? Then you discovered AltaVista. And then there was Google.

The competition continues.

First, a search-engine update: For the moment, Google continues as the big search engine that could and does. As it chugs, it just keeps gaining steam. Google won the Best Practices Award at July's prestigious Webbies.

This summer, Google introduced and then more than doubled its new image search service, at http://images.google.com, and now says it offers the most comprehensive image search (250 million) on the Web. Other recent enhancements included the ability to translate pages, and search PDF files and the vast archive (hundreds of millions) of newsgroup messages.

In its improved advanced search interface, Google allows users to determine how fresh they require their results to be through date-range searching, and to search which pages link to a particular page - handy for assessing a site's reliability. Users of Internet Explorer now can carry the Google Tool Bar, with them as they travel around the Web. And when you are searching a broad topic, don't forget the Google Directory, where human judgment is merged directly with page-link technology.

Keep an eye on a number of new engines that are chugging along right behind, competing either with fresher data or with refinements that present those frustrating millions of search results in a more organized manner. Autoclassification, the ability for a search tool to mechanically sort results into topics, appears to be the most popular new strategy. It is used effectively by my favorite up-and-comer, the metasearch tool Vivisimo. Unlike other "clustering tools," Vivisimo organizes its search results into hierarchies, allowing users to zoom in on items of interest. While Northern Light has been using this strategy for several years, its clusters are predefined. Vivisimo says it creates its annotations and clusters spontaneously.

I am beginning to use GuideBeam, with students as a tool to narrow their topics. Guidebeam, which used to run over Google results, now runs over AltaVista, automatically clustering results into a variety of categories you might never have thought of searching on your own. WiseNut, launched in May, says it improves on Google's link-relevance system by frequent Web crawling and by combining its own link-relevance formula with a context-sensitive ranking. WiseNut's clustering feature collects Web pages from the same site under one result, eliminating duplication and allowing a broader number of results to be shown on each page.Teoma, with a smaller database of URLs, is also trying to do Google one better. Teoma ranks pages on the judgment of "peer sites," by how many links a site has from other sites relating to the user's query. Teoma groups its results into three areas: Web pages, topics, and sites created by "topic experts."

Chris Sherman, editor of SearchDay for Search Engine Watch, noted a few new trends. Sherman says search engines' bragging rights are shifting from "who has the biggest to who has the freshest." He points to signs of this new competition. Fast's All the Web, my usual needle-in-a-haystack tool, recently underwent a major redesign in July, and it now claims to be the freshest, crawling the Web every nine to 12 days. "Google claims to crawl the whole Web once a month," Sherman said. He noted that Quigo, will soon release a crawler designed to search the "invisible" Web, the content in online catalogs and databases that is not accessible through general-purpose search tools. "The new crawler," Sherman says, "looks for forms, and understands fields and the type of content a database presents." Sherman predicts that changes in AltaVista's engine will position it "to go head to head with Google."

A couple of subject-specific tools recently appeared on the track. Scirus: For Scientific Information Only, was developed by the respected publisher Elsevier Science. Users may search across all branches of the sciences, or focus a search in an area such as biosciences, astronomy, engineering, or social and behavioral sciences. Scirus also provides a list of related terms for refining the search on the bottom of the results page.

Without a shelf full of reference books, it would be tough to find the definition of a term in the context of a particular area of study, for instance, the fashions of India, or earthquake hazards. Glossarist, a comprehensive directory of glossaries and topical dictionaries, is a handy solution, allowing us to keep up with dynamic, evolving vocabularies.

First Gov for Kids, is the U.S. government's new interagency gateway for children. The site is highly colorful and engaging and will lead students to quality, age-appropriate material in categories ranging from the arts to transportation.

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Joyce Kasman Valenza is the librarian at Springfield High School in Erdenheim, Pa. Her column appears each week in tech.life

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