Katherine Boehret

A New Search Engine Specializing in Fun

If you’re like me, you like to make the most out of what little free time you have. One way of finding ideas for activities without wasting precious minutes is by searching online. But sometimes the process of browsing the Web can suck you in and waste more time than it saves.

This week, I tested a tool called Goby (pronounced go-be), www.goby.com, which works as an activity search engine to help you find things to do. It tries to be simple enough so that you can get some ideas and start doing the things you want to do rather than wasting hours in front of the computer.

Goby uses three boxes—What, Where and When—with drop-down menus to find results for your query. It crawls the Web searching what it considers high quality information from 500 sources and employs a part-human, part-machine review process to ensure first-rate results. Goby searches through over 200 categories, including live music, art exhibits, outdoor festivals, spas, bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants.

Using Goby was an emotional roller coaster. With very little effort I found things in Washington, D.C., that I’ve never heard of in the seven-plus years I’ve lived here, including tea with Martha Washington and a stuffed Civil War hero horse on display at the Smithsonian. But I also found inaccurate Goby results like an activity in Washington state rather than Washington, D.C., or photos that were supposed to represent a tennis center but instead showed a celebrity’s child with the same name. And sometimes the same results were listed four times in a row.

Goby’s results took a serious nose dive when I looked outside the city in my hometown of Allentown, Pa. I searched for all performing arts and theater near Allentown, an area that I know first-hand has plenty to offer in the way of music, theater and dance. Goby returned two results—one for the Nutcracker in December and another for a Shakespeare play that was put on last July. A quick check of my hometown newspaper’s Web site showed hundreds of performances to attend in the coming months.

mossberg

The Goby home page

Goby.com has been available to the public for only a few weeks and it is still working out some kinks. The more people use it, the more accurate its results will become—or at least that’s what its founders hope will happen. When Goby’s search results are accurate, they include the kinds of thing locals would want to see or do in their own hometown, and that’s no small feat. But people won’t have a lot of patience for some of the erroneous results that now show up in Goby. Also, this activity search engine currently lacks features like the ability to build and save itineraries, make one-click ticket purchases or book reservations.

Though Goby’s query boxes ask users to enter What, Where and When, the When is always an optional specification, and people can enter either What or Where if they only know one of these factors. General suggestions of categories also are made in Goby’s drop-down menus. The What box opens five categories: things to do, food and drink, events, places to stay and, right now, fall fun; many of these open several, more-specified subcategories. For example, I started a search and followed a four-part trail: things to do, outdoor recreation, horseback riding and horseback riding trails—all within the same drop-down menu.

If you know what you want to do but not where you want to do it, the drop-down arrow in the Where box opens an interactive map of the U.S. Users can pan around the entire country, zooming in on specific areas or small towns. I even zoomed in on Minot, N.D. (population 35,000) and found out about an event taking place at the Northwest Arts Center on Nov. 2.

This map comes in handy if you know the general geographic area where you would like to spend time, but don’t know the area’s name.

Lists of query results are deliberately designed to show more than just Web links, like what Google (GOOG) often displays. Suggested activities are displayed in a numbered list on the left side of the screen, and a map with corresponding numbers is displayed on the right, moving along with your cursor as you scroll on the page. A blue flashlight tool on the map can be dragged anywhere to pinpoint exactly where you want to find activities, and after you drop the flashlight on a spot, the left-hand list dynamically changes to correspond with that map view.

A “More Info” tab shows vital information for each query result like a description, time, address and Web site for the activity. If you are looking at lodging, you can adjust a price scale to limit or expand results for rooms that cost a certain amount per night. Lists of results can be sorted according to category: Art events can be sorted by relevance, distance, date or name; bed-and-breakfasts also can be sorted by price.

Photos representing these activities are pulled in from source sites like bedandbreakfast.com as well as from Google and Flickr. While these images can provide a quick glimpse of something while saving users from navigating to another Web page, some of the results weren’t accurate. For example, when I searched for tennis in Washington, D.C., a tennis program that I didn’t know about called “Tennis at Shiloh” was listed in results. But four out of six photos showed images of Shiloh, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s child of the same name. I called the organization to confirm that it is indeed a real program, but without calling, I would have seen the photos, doubted the quality of the place and looked for another spot to play tennis.

A “What’s Nearby” function is designed to help people expand their activity searches. It takes the address of a selected activity and suggests other things nearby like places to go for dinner or where to listen to live music.

Unfortunately, Goby doesn’t let you build an itinerary. So if you find a few possible activities for a weekend trip to Williamsburg, Va., and then use “What’s Nearby” to find a pub for lunch, a restaurant for dinner and a bed-and-breakfast for the night, you can’t save all of these findings using Goby. The company says it plans to incorporate these features in the near future.

Goby would be incredibly helpful if it had a mobile app. This Sunday when I was across town from my house and had an unexpected block of free time, I could have used Goby to find a nearby art exhibit or a spot for apple picking. Goby says it is working on an iPhone app, which it expects to release later this year.

If you get lucky with Goby, you’ll find activities that let you do as its name says: Go, be and enjoy your surrounding area. But the site’s results need to be much more accurate for me to start relying on it full time.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

Email mossbergsolution@wsj.com


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