Katherine Boehret

Testing Souped-Up Search Functions

Search, by nature, doesn’t need to be overly exciting stuff. It usually involves typing a word in a box, pressing enter and reading results to find the best one — and this style works well for plenty of people, as is evidenced by Google’s success. But many would like to see search become smarter, more intuitive or even visually stimulating.

SearchMe
Searchme

This week, I tested two applications that turn searching into feasts for the eyes. Instead of showing search results in lines of text, these results are visually based. One, called SpaceTime, displays search results in three-dimensional views that make images look as if they are flying onto the screen. The other, an actual search engine called Searchme, spreads image results out in fan-like patterns. Both SpaceTime and Searchme encourage people to search by choosing what looks visually familiar or accurate, rather than trying to discern what the text in a link might mean.

The idea of improved search isn’t a new one. Many have tried, ranging from Ask.com’s media-rich result pages to Mahalo.com’s human-powered search engine. But Google’s (GOOG) simplicity and experience have made it hard to beat, and competitors know the importance of relevant and reliable results. Rather than comparing these sites with the big G, I looked at them as add-ons that could be especially useful for certain searches.

Searchme, a search engine built from the ground up, is technically in private beta — meaning that it is still a work in progress and users must be invited to use it. The company gave me access to the site and created a link so that readers of this column could also use it: www.searchme.com/wsj. This Web-based tool works on Windows and Mac operating systems and in any major browser, and it tries to improve search by asking users to choose a category for their search terms.

For instance, when I typed “US Open” in the Searchme box, categories appeared to the right, including Tennis, Squash, Gambling & Casinos and Golf. Since I was looking for the tennis-related grand slam, I chose the Tennis category and saved myself some typing. The more I used Searchme, the more I came to rely on these categories for faster, more-refined results.

SpaceTime
SpaceTime

Searchme’s visual search works by displaying snapshots of Web sites, each of which has the search term highlighted on its page. These pages fan out from the center to look like Cover Flow in Apple Inc.’s (AAPL) iTunes, visually sorting images like album covers in a jukebox so they can be flipped through until the best Web page is found.

By moving a cursor along a horizontal scroll bar below these pages, I skimmed through 10 to 15 Web sites in a matter of seconds, quickly weeding out unwanted sites. But these pages don’t allow interaction like scrolling down or playing of embedded videos. A button below these images reveals a list-view where text and links relating to the images are listed, but I kept this option hidden more often than not.

Though Searchme’s categories are helpful and I liked using visual searching, I did notice many more results, overall, while performing searches through Google and Yahoo (YHOO). A Google search for the Regency Hotel in New York City returned accurate links to the hotel’s Web site — and a map. Searchme’s first result was a defunct Web page for the Regency, and the younger search engine doesn’t yet have maps, news or stock quotes like Google.

Settings can be adjusted for Searchme, including one option to filter out adult content and another to open up new windows whenever a Web page is selected, so as not to lose the current page.

SpaceTime (www.spacetime.com) differs from Searchme in that it doesn’t try to be its own search engine. Instead, it is a browser that works with established search engines and Web sites. It isn’t Web-based, like Searchme, and must be downloaded to a Windows (MSFT) PC (it doesn’t yet work on Macs). The intense 3-D graphics of this program work best on a computer with at least one gigabyte of system memory and 256 megabytes of dedicated video memory.

At first glance, SpaceTime appears to be a normal browser. It has the usual URL line where specific Web sites can be entered and a search box at the top right that can be set to search Google, Google Images, Yahoo, Yahoo Images, eBay (EBAY), Flickr, YouTube, RSS feeds or Amazon (AMZN).

But using this search box starts the fun of the product. Search results appear as images lined up on the screen, floating through space and descending into the distance in a 3-D visualization akin to that of Windows Vista’s Flip 3D. SpaceTime’s dark background gives it a dramatic edge, and each object is reflected in an artistic, glass-like surface. Results can be tweaked, turned, magnified and moved within this 3-D space.

When I performed normal Google or Yahoo searches, the returned results appeared as images of each Web site on which the searched term appeared. When I searched for images on Google, Yahoo or Flickr, the results came back in image-only fashion — not images embedded in Web sites — that looked stunning lined up in 3-D. Searches of eBay are especially useful on SpaceTime because each item up for bid zooms onto the screen as its own object along with its current price, number of bids and remaining auction time. YouTube searches return videos lined up in SpaceTime’s 3-D environment.

With all of these images flying in and out of the screen, things can get a little overwhelming. One pile of search results is called a stack, and each stack is automatically saved in a dock at the bottom of the screen, labeled with a thumbnail image of where you last left off. Searches can be saved and snapshots of screens can be captured and saved in the dock.

To return results as fast as possible, SearchTime says it will pull up just 10 at a time for image, product and video searches, or five pages at once for content-heavy sites. But in my tests, using two different Vista computers with 2GB of RAM each, I usually never saw more than five results at a time. The next five or 10 images can be retrieved by choosing a “Next Set” button at the bottom of the screen.

On-screen Web sites and objects are interactive, meaning that I could scroll down within a Web page or play a YouTube video within the SpaceTime screen. A clever magnifying glass pops up on the screen to pinpoint the original search term on each page.

SpaceTime allowed me to rapidly flip through tens or even hundreds of images and Web sites in a very short time, but it wasn’t perfect. Some search results took a while to load, only displaying the first object while the other lined-up objects appeared as empty frames because they were still loading. YouTube seemed sluggish and wasn’t as easy to navigate as some other searches, and Flickr was especially slow to load in a few of my tests.

SpaceTime is working on a Web-based version that won’t rely so heavily on each user’s PC specs, and Searchme is still in its testing phase, working to return more relevant results. But for now, these two sites turn search into a different, much more visually stimulating experience. After using these programs for a little while, I started to search differently — moving through results faster and clicking on fewer links that returned unwanted results. Though I’ll still rely on Google for basic searches, visual search can save time and turn searching into a fun process.

Email mossbergsolution@wsj.com


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