Katherine Boehret

Web Searches That Really Bear Fruit

There’s nothing more frustrating than a fruitless Web search — or one that returns results that distract you from your original goal. Search giant Google knows this all too well and realizes that there’s a chance you might switch to another search engine if you get tired of poor results.

This week I tested two free tools that attempt to make your Web searches more relevant by learning from users’ reactions to search results: Google’s SearchWiki and Surf Canyon Inc.’s namesake tool for Web browsers. These two don’t necessarily compete against each other; in fact, they can be used in tandem. But after initially entering a search query, SearchWiki requires additional work on the part of the user that many people may not want to do. Surf Canyon works automatically as you go, sorting results according to real-time user behavior.

SearchWiki depends on people to rank their own search results by promoting favored URLs to the top of a screen and knocking others to the bottom. It is available to most people who are logged into a Google account, and these user preferences are remembered if the same searches are performed at other times.

This sorting is done using elegant animation; preferred URLs float to the top of the screen when selected and unwanted results disappear in a magic-trick-like poof when removed. Comments about a link can be typed into a word bubble beside the URL and all comments are available to the public, labeled as posted by “Searcher” unless you create another nickname for yourself. People can also add preferred URLs to a search-results page if, for example, they know a better link about something than those that show up.

Web Searches That Really Bear Fruit
Google’s SearchWiki

But who wants to do all this work? Google (GOOG) says your votes don’t influence the way other Google users see search results, nor do they affect your search results if you aren’t logged into Google. You can see the number of votes a URL got from fellow voters, as well as comments made about the URL — but only after you select a link at the bottom of the search-results page. If you promote a URL, you’ll automatically see what other people think about this link.

For your efforts, you’ll create a small collection of results that are saved in your account, sorted by date and time should you ever want to revisit them. This could come in handy in some circumstances, such as if you were researching a topic and you forgot to save Web pages as you went. Google confusingly calls these “SearchWiki notes,” though they really include all of the links you voted on, as well as typed-in notes about links.

SearchWiki is a tough sell because most of us are already trained to surf the Web quickly, skipping ahead and back through links without taking the time to rank those results or comment on them. And it only works with Google searches.

If you like the idea of more personalized Web searches but would like to use other search engines or don’t want to do extra work, you might like Surf Canyon. Once downloaded, this tool displays bull’s-eyes beside certain results to show that Surf Canyon has found additional related hits. Clicking on this bull’s-eye reveals those suggested links, pulled from deeper down in the search results, and these links might have bull’s-eyes of their own. This cascade of data goes on and on as an algorithm studies which of the returned results you do or don’t choose.

You might be deterred from using Surf Canyon because it must be downloaded before it works on Internet Explorer or Firefox. (A version of Surf Canyon for Apple’s (AAPL) Safari browser is due out within a month.) This tool works with Google, Yahoo (YHOO), Microsoft Live Search (MSFT) and Craigslist, and just started working with LexisNexis’s LexisWeb.com legal-search engine.

Surf Canyon might not seem to be doing much at first, but it changes and reflects your preferences as you make them. For example, a search for “Obama dog” originally returned results about how the President-elect and his family are narrowing their search for a puppy. But as I opened more links related specifically to Mr. Obama’s daughters, more results appeared on screen about Sasha and Malia. Each time I hit the browser’s Back button to return to the original search page, Surf Canyon offered a new set of relevant URLs.

I tried looking at Craigslist.com for last-minute inauguration tickets, and one hit listed an inauguration-appropriate dress that someone was giving away free. The Surf Canyon bull’s-eye appeared beside this result, and when I selected it, three more dress listings appeared.

Surf Canyon recently released an option for users who want long-term personalization, found at my.surfcanyon.com. It lets people select sources from which they prefer to receive news, shopping, research, or sports and entertainment results. Individual sites not listed on this page can also be added to a list of sources to use; likewise, sites can be added to a blacklist so results never come from them.

Unlike Google, Surf Canyon doesn’t save your history or usage profile. And if you haven’t created personalized preferences using the link above, it responds solely using your as-they-happen signals, like when you choose one link over another.

Google’s SearchWiki is asking users to do extra work, which may not be practical for many users. But if you do use it, this tool’s personalized, saved results could be a real boon. Surf Canyon worked well for me with multiple search engines, retrieving data from result pages I likely wouldn’t have opened. Either way, your days of futile Web searching are numbered.

Edited By Walter S. Mossberg

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