Rival engines catch up with Google

November 17, 2004

GOOGLE, the world's number one search engine, has lost its edge. That's the considered view of software engineers who have been testing an early version of Microsoft's MSN Search service, released last week. The quality of search offered by the Microsoft product will soon easily match that of Google, the experts say. And Yahoo's search engine already does, they add. Google is only top of the heap because of the "mindshare" it has garnered since it exploded onto the scene in 1998. "It's now more a perception issue that Google is the best," says Chris Sherman of the SearchEngineWatch website in Darien, Connecticut.

"For some things, Yahoo is already much better." His colleague Danny Sullivan adds: "Google's secret weapon was advanced link analysis. But now everyone, including Microsoft, is doing link analysis, and the quality of search has gone up across the board." Google shot to glory because it had a killer technology that could find the most relevant search hits in a heartbeat. "Google came out with a better search technology when everyone was else was ignoring it," says Jim Friedland, an analyst at investment bank SG Cowen in San Francisco. At the time, the dotcoms were obsessed with developing portals; only Google realised how lucrative spot-on searching could be. Its secret weapon, an algorithm called PageRank, was patented by Larry Page, one of its co-founders. PageRank determines a web page's importance by the number of sites that link to it, and then weights those links according to a number of other factors.

It has been so successful that the verb "to google" has entered the vernacular. Google made money by displaying ads relevant to the search, with the advertiser paying for each click-through. Google's Achilles' heel is the fact that while the PageRank algorithm is proprietary, the link analysis underlying it is a general method for studying connectivity in networks, and so cannot be patented. This is allowing other search engines such as Yahoo and AskJeeves to use link analysis alongside their own weighting data. "Everyone is now using link information and the ideas behind PageRank," says Oren Etzioni, a computer scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle. "It's not the same algorithm but it's the same idea." Last week, Microsoft joined the fray with its own search engine based on link analysis (http://beta.search.msn.com). Although the site had a few start-up glitches, observers immediately saw a leap in the quality of Microsoft's search hits. "The differences between the search engines are now so slight, it's going to be hard for any company to differentiate on technical grounds," Sherman says. Bill Gates's engineers are trying other tricks, too.

Like AskJeeves, MSN Search attempts to parse and answer natural-language questions such as: "What is the capital of Turkey?". Users can go to a preference panel to tune their search by adjusting the weight given to the popularity, importance and update frequency of websites. They can also localise a search because MSN can figure out a computer's location from its internet protocol address. Google users have to type their location. As for Google, it is continuing to try and grab as much of the PC action as possible with offerings like its Google toolbar, Gmail service and recently launched Desktop Search system. What is likely to keep Google at the top for the foreseeable future is its prominent position in most people's minds. "Google has become synonymous with search," Sherman says. "That's Microsoft's biggest challenge."
This article appears in New Scientist issue: 20 November 2004



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