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by Harry Gardiner on 12th December 2013
I’ve always felt a bit sorry for vacuums. Hear me out. There are hundreds of brands of vacuum, yet Hoover have capitalised most on both the name and the action. Let’s face it, you’re much more likely to say you are going to “hoover” something than you are “vacuum” it; and all because they probably had a better marketing team at one point or another.
The same goes for search engines. “Just Google it” has become a common placeholder for the act of searching for something on the internet. It’s constantly used as verb, despite very obviously being the name of a brand. There are even guides on how to do it!
But why should Google get all the glory? Much like their dust-sucking mechanical counterparts, there are a hundreds of other search engines out there. Why don’t we say we’re going to Bing something? Bing even sounds slightly less ridiculous than the word Google and Microsoft even tried to make this happen with several high profile TV shows making their cast say “Bing it”. So why didn’t that take off instead?
After all, Google may own the majority share of the worldwide search market, but other search platforms are being used regularly every day. In fact, one third of all search queries in the USA are made on Bing or Yahoo.
For reference, this is how the UK stacks up against the US in terms of search engine use:
Not as different as you expected huh? (Both graphs courtesy of Global Stats)
Armed with this knowledge, and a foolish sense of discovery, I decided to try not using Google search for a while. It couldn’t hurt too much could it?
Google’s great and all, but maybe the other search engines could present me with just as interesting, if not better, results.
So let’s get critical for a second. I will be evaluating the search engines in three categories; layout, usability and results.
So which search engines will I be using? I’m not brave or bi-lingual enough to use China’s Baidu, the world’s second largest search engine; and Yandex hasn’t properly broken into the UK yet. So, instead, I’m going to pick four engines; namely Ask, or the engine formerly known as Ask Jeeves; DuckDuckGo, the indie search engine; Bing, Microsoft’s offering that everybody loves to hate, and YAHOO!, the Bing powered, yet still unique in its own special way, results provider.
To begin with, first it’s time to ditch Chrome, because it’s too tempting to use the Omnibar for everything, and load up the old faithful Firefox.
In my teenage years, when the cloud was still a puffy white thing that dispensed rain and putting the words superfast and internet together seemed like a sick joke; Firefox was my browser of choice. It seemed so sleek and effortless, openly letting me play around under its hood like a custom sports car.
But now I’m starting to think that maybe the memory of something is much sweeter than the cold, hard truth; because as I click that familiar blue and orange button, the whole process seems to slow down, and everything that once looked shiny and new is now tarnished and dulled with age.
Firefox is not as clear as Chrome, it’s as if everything is too zoomed in. There’s a noticeable delay when entering search queries into the Awesome Bar, and it doesn’t seem as friendly as it once felt. It’s now like a sluggish, slightly less sharp cousin to Chrome.
So inevitably, I did what anyone does when they first open a new browser, and customised it like crazy. I didn’t care too much about the theme, but by using tools like Faster Fox, AdBlock Plus, Autocopy and Tab Mix Plus (all quintessential installations by the way), I was able to adjust to an experience I’m slightly more used to, and settle into the browser slightly easier.
After a brief moment of panic, where I realised I hadn’t changed the default search engine for the Awesome Bar (which is more a sort of ‘Subpar Bar’ to be perfectly honest), I foraged through the configuration menu and managed to change the main search engine to Bing. This is a task I realised I’m going to have to do every week if I want to stay true to this test… fun times.
For those of you who want to change your default search engine yourself, simply type ‘about:config’ into the URL bar.
It’ll warn you that this is a dangerous area you’re entering, where tampering with the wrong thing could end up with the Universe collapsing in on itself, but you’re a seasoned adventurer, so go right ahead and enter the menu.
Using the search bar at the top of the page, type ‘Keyword.URL’. Double click the only result that should be showing and input the search URL you wish to use. Make sure it’s the long-form search URL, and not simply the web address of your desired search engine. It should look something like this: “http://www.bing.com/search?q=”
Type that in, click OK, close the configuration menu and go on your merry way.
So without further ado, now we’re as prepped as humanly possible, let’s begin.
Week 1: 12th – 18th November
Did you know that 3.5 million Bing users supposedly don’t search on Google? That’s a lot of people using this so called ‘Decision Engine’, and preferring it. For all the bad rep it gets, it can’t be that bad can it? Let’s find out.
The homepage is great, giving you a fantastic new picture every day and plying you with information you never knew you needed. So at least I learnt something new every day.
When it comes to searching, results were clear and surrounded by open space, which makes this a great platform for viewing images, specifically GIFs and videos.
Despite the fact that Bing apparently shows more adverts in the top ad positions than Google, I didn’t actually notice any ads when using Bing, even with AdBlocker Plus turned off. I’m not sure whether I got lucky, or maybe I’m just missing something. By all means, if you’re constantly plagued by adverts in Bing then please let me know in the comments section below, I’d be very interested in hearing your search queries and the quarrels you’ve had with Bing ads.
The fact that Bing animates GIFs and plays videos directly from the results page is fantastic. It makes it great for finding suitable visuals. It even suggests popular or relevant searches that you may also be looking for, in an interesting, almost quasi-alternative to Google’s knowledge graph. This great ‘in-search image viewer’ (as it shall now be known) could be improved though, with the inclusion of social share buttons, which would in turn make Bing search a truly integrated web experience.
Even in improving their music search they missed a trick by not integrating it directly into the main search function, instead you have to click through to the videos section.
That being said, their video search format is really handy, displaying the videos in a grid format which makes them easy as pie to scroll through.
One nice little feature which I hadn’t noticed before is the ‘search within’ bar. This isn’t on every site, but it was pretty handy when it was available. If Google does have this, I’ve never noticed it. Whilst I know this is incredibly easy to do within the Google search bar, presenting it like this makes the function much simpler to carry out.
Bing’s search isn’t as smart as you’d expect.
Take a moment now to go search your name on Bing, go on, I’ll wait here…
Did you get any results for your actual name, or did you just get images of yourself alongside other results for people with the same name as you. At one point I simply received images back, with no other results. This left me perplexed, annoyed and, to be perfectly honest, a little self-conscious. Not how Microsoft wants its users to feel I’m sure.
Unless you’re relatively well-known in certain circles, or a celebrity, chances are Bing won’t deliver the results you’re expecting for your name.
Sadly, this also means that Microsoft’s ‘Decision Engine’ is not that great for song lyrics either. Searching for songs via their lyrics is a common practise. At the time of writing (Tuesday 12th November), when searching for Icona Pop’s All night, by using the lyrics “we can do this all night, everything is alright” (both with and without speech marks), the actual song was nowhere to be found. Whilst I realise these are relatively common lyrics, there should still be some form of relevancy at play influencing these results no?
After a week with Bing, I’m in two minds. On one hand, I don’t see why there’s so much hate directed its way – it’s a perfectly competent search engine, but that’s about it. It doesn’t always come up with the right results, but when it does it has some pretty great things to show you.
Verdict: Great for discovering new facts and finding relevant visuals; slightly less great for actually showing you what you want to see.
Week 2: 19th – 25th November
Despite being powered by Bing, Yahoo still stands its own. It was the third most used search engine in the world over the last year, and Yahoo.com is the self-professed most visited homepage in the world as well. That’s a large amount of global reach, so how does it compare to others?
Yahoo adopts a very simple search layout, which feels if anything a little too simple. Everything is presented clearly and put into columns, but where there feels like there should be a knowledge graph, or at least some sort of preview box, we instead get a clear space that’s occasionally populated by adverts.
The first thing I noticed about Yahoo is that it was slow. Painstakingly so. Now this might just be an issue that affects me, so please let me know if you have this problem as well because I noticed that my results timed out… a lot.
I thought it might just be my internet connection, but this happened wherever I went. All it took was refreshing to get the results I needed, but this certainly wasn’t the optimal search experience.
Other than that, it’s incredibly easy to use. The navigational pane down the left hand side, along with the news filter and the email access icon on the other side, are ideal for accessing everything you need whilst on the web.
I love the ability to filter by time, which makes it a great search engine for finding contextual results, but it also means that everything you search for is heavily influenced by Yahoo’s news feeds.
This can sometimes be troublesome, say a child searched for something related to pop punk music via Yahoo and was presented with results of the recent Ian Watkins case, for example.
It also has a habit of presenting you with random shopping results that aren’t really necessary. A quick search of the term ‘Cartoon’ for example presents you with shopping adverts for some kind of cheap Eau de Toilette. Something I’d want to keep as physically far away from my (hypothetical) children as possible. It seems as if Yahoo has turned me into an over protective pseudo-parent. Brilliant.
Other than strange parenting issues, I also had some problems finding local results. When searching for my local Asda’s opening times, using the search term: “Local Asda Opening Times” the first result was a link to Asda’s Store finder, rather than my actual local store; reminding me just how useful local search, when combined with Google’s knowledge graph, actually is.
Verdict: Simple to use, but difficult to actually do what you want from it. Brilliant for gathering news, but the results may have to be filtered slightly more.
Week 3: 26th November – 2nd December
Ask Jeeves has to be one of the most quintessentially British ideas for a search engine ever. Type your question into the search bar (guarded by a posh looking bloke in a suit, the aforementioned Jeeves), and the website will fetch you a list of suitable answers, or resources from which you can find your answer. So let’s see how this ‘answer’ engine stacks compare to its competition.
Much like Bing, Ask have chosen to go for the useful search page layout, with weather updates, customisable sections and a nice view of daily questions.
The question of the day is actually a nice little bonus, presenting trivia that would definitely come in handy if I wanted to enter a Pub Quiz. For example, did you know that the longest movie ever made is called Modern Times Forever, and it runs for 10 days! You learn something new every day.
What about the results page layout though? It’s actually pretty nifty. Ask prioritises answers over links, by presenting you with information it feels to be relevant at the top of the page, alongside related questions and answers on the side. Instead of trying to incorporate a knowledge graph into search results, Ask.com puts the knowledge first.
Ask are intent on ensuring it’s never been easier to find the answers to your questions, even those questions you’d never thought to ask. It couldn’t be easier to use, if you’re asking a question that is.
Here’s where it gets tricky though, because Ask still works as a search engine, but it’s clear from the offset that its priorities lie with answers.
Also, rather disappointingly, I’ve stopped receiving search suggestions when using the awesome bar, it auto completes if I’ve searched for the phrase already, but otherwise I’m flying blind. I would of thought this would be a feature that Ask would be particularly focussed on including.
As mentioned earlier, Ask presents questions and answers based on your search, making it a great fact finding or decision making engine, but not so great for finding specific pages.
For example when searching the name of a popular Bike store, Ask’s first result took me to their bike product page and the next their support page. I’m not sure if they’re the top two most visited pages on this site, but shouldn’t I be taken directly to the homepage if I search for a specific brand? Just a thought.
Depending on what you search, the results page can be occasionally plagued with adverts and because of this it can sometimes be hard to tell where they end and where the actual unsponsored results (or “answers”, as I guess they should be called) begin.
Verdict: If you can phrase everything as a question you should have no problem getting along with Ask.com.
Week 4: 3rd – 9th December
Powered by a partnership with Russian giants Yandex, Duck Duck Go is the independent, anonymous search engine which is making the big players in the search industry quake in their theoretical boots.
Presenting results in a nice, cantered layout, with the adverts and actual websites displayed clearly and separate from each other, DDG (as it shall now be referred to) is a pleasure to look at.
Displaying relevant information at the very top of the page, it also gives you the option to search via various other different sources via a panel on the right-hand side.
It also has a pretty nifty logo, so bonus points right there.
The anonymous search as standard is a massive selling point for most. It’s a stark contrast to Google’s “your data is ours and there’s nothing you can do about it” approach.
DDG’s one true vice is that it’s purely for web searches. No option for image or video search means that I was left at a disadvantage compared to other results providers
That being said, it presents all your results on one, scrollable page, meaning that you won’t be left searching page after page for a relevant link. It’ll show you a well-sized list of results that the engine feels is relevant and nothing more. If they can’t find the result you’re looking for, there are no hard feelings about it, they simply present the options to search somewhere else.
Usually though you’re certain to find what you’re searching for, if not so much more.
Here’s what truly surprised me about DDG, it brings up different results from what you’d usually expect. It generally looks as if it scours the web for exactly what you searched. Not the most relevant topic, or the nearest thing, but exactly what you typed into the search bar.
Of course this means that it really doesn’t like misspelt search queries, and you’ll definitely have to use other engines to provide anything more than web results; but it makes DDG perfect for finding guest blog spots. By searching for certain topics and blogs along with “write for us” or “guest post”, I was able to bring up blogs I’d never even seen in Google’s results. A lot of these were of varying standards of course, but it’s still a whole new crop of resources.
Next time you’re outreaching, try using DDG. You might just be pleasantly surprised by the results you receive.
Verdict: Call me a sucker for an underdog, but I actually really got on with Duck Duck Go. It had an independent charm; presenting results that never ceased to surprise me, that made me really enjoy my time spent using it. That being said, it will be nice to be able to search images again.
So what did I learn from all this? Well for a start, there’s evidently a reason why the big G is so popular. People moan about the constant changes that Google make, but they’re obviously made for a very good reason. The constant tweaking of results and subtle changes to the UX deliver an all-encompassing search experience.
Of course there are a few things Google could learn from the other engines. Revising the layout, and playability, of their images and videos for example. They could also further expand the knowledge graph using Ask’s examples of similar topics, questions and searches. But I’m sure that there’s someone somewhere in the Google offices that is already hard at work making these changes as well as many, many more. If not, feel free to send a jet to come pick me up Google, I’ve some great ideas about a duck-like mascot…
Which search engine do you prefer? Is there any particular reason why you wouldn’t use a certain engine? Feel free to leave your answers to these questions, and any thoughts you have on this article, in the comments section below.