A good search engine is a lawyer's most useful Internet tool. The reigning best of breed is Google, which can't be beat for sheer breadth: It is home to the largest Web archive by far, indexing more than 3 billion Web documents. But a handful of other search engines are coming up fast. Who are these upstarts and what makes them think they can take on Google?
By Robert J. Ambrogi|June 17, 2002 at 12:00 AM
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A good search engine is a lawyer’s most useful Internet tool. Although the reigning best of breed is Google, at www.google.com, a handful of upstarts are laying claim to the throne. Sheer breadth is a major factor in Google’s search superiority. It is home to the largest Web archive by far, indexing more than 3 billion Web documents. Its closest competitor in size claims barely half that many. To search this many documents by hand, Google points out, would take nearly 6,000 years. With so many documents in its collection, Google would be of little use if it could not display search results ranked by their relevance to the query. Here again, Google excels, thanks to its so-called Page Rank technology. Simply put, Google interprets a link to a Web page as a kind of vote for its quality cast from among the Internet’s democratic masses. The more sites that link to a page, Google presumes, the more valuable it must be. There is more. Google Groups is a complete archive of discussions from Usenet — the Internet’s original bulletin board — going back to 1981, when Usenet began. Google Image Search claims to be the largest image archive on the Web. Need a medical illustration? Try here. So who are these upstarts and what makes them think they can take on Google? Among the worthiest of the challengers is Teoma, at www.teoma.com, launched on April 2. Although its collection of documents is not as large as Google’s, Teoma aims to deliver a higher degree of relevance in its search results. Like Google, it ranks the relevance of pages through a sort of Web popularity contest. But while Google draws votes from all of the Web, Teoma first identifies other sites on the same topic, then analyzes how often those sites link to the page. Teoma calls this “Subject-Specific Popularity.” The idea is this: If you want to know the best Web sites for auto enthusiasts, you will do better by polling the sites of other auto enthusiasts than by polling the Internet at large. This makes sense for lawyers. Of all the law-related sites, the best ones for lawyers are likely to be the ones that lawyers as a group most often link to, as opposed to those that nonlawyers find useful. Teoma touts two other features, “Refine” and “Resources,” both of which appear onscreen to the right of the search results. The Refine feature organizes query results into what Teoma calls “naturally occurring communities.” Search “Labor Relations,” for example, and Teoma will suggest the following categories by which you can refine the search results: Industrial Relations, Employment Relations, University Labor, Labor Law, Labor Relations Board, Management Relations and Supreme Court Collections. The Resources feature provides jumping-off points to links elsewhere on the Web dealing with the query topic. The same Labor Relations search yielded links to resources such as the Institute of Industrial Relations Library at the University of California, Berkeley. CLEVER AND WISE Another upstart, Vivisimo, at www.vivisimo.com, takes its name from the Spanish word for “clever.” It is not really a search engine at all; it does not crawl or index the Web. Rather, it is a software program that calls on search engines, extracts the relevant data and then organizes the results into a clear and hierarchical folder structure, much like the one in a Windows directory. Perform a search here, and your results appear in the center of your screen as they would elsewhere. But to the left is a group of folders and subfolders into which Vivisimo has almost instantly organized the search results. The same Labor Relations search resulted in 22 top-level folders, with names such as Industrial Relations and Labor Relations Board. Click on Industrial Relations, and 10 subfolders appear. The folders make it easier to zero in on the sites whose topics most closely match a query. Last but not least, there is WiseNut, at www.wisenut.com, which, like Vivisimo, organizes search results into categories. These categories, which appear in what the site calls its “WiseGuide,” are generated on the fly using key words drawn from search results. My search for Labor Relations on WiseNut yields three main categories — Labor Relations, Industrial Relations and Other — and another eight subcategories. WiseNut is among the larger search engines in the size of its database, boasting some 1.5 billion documents. Each listed result includes the Sneak-A-Peek button, a feature no other search site has. Click it, and the listed site appears in a small window directly on the search results page, eliminating the need to hit your browser’s Back button repeatedly. So which of these sites stands out at the showdown? If we are to judge by sheer numbers, Google wins. Here are the numbers of matches each site returned for the search Labor Relations: Google 1,370,000, Teoma 500,000, WiseNut 104,053 and Vivisimo 176. All four returned similar results at the top — and therefore most relevant — of their results lists. All but WiseNut had the National Labor Relations Board first; WiseNut had it second. All four had Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations within their top three. The strangest result was on Vivisimo, which had as its sixth most relevant site a Dutch maker of wooden shoes. While Google’s pre-eminence appears secure, Teoma, with its refinement suggestions and resource collections, and WiseNut, with its large archive and friendly features, are useful alternatives. Vivisimo’s folders are appealing, but its results were disappointing. Robert J. Ambrogi, firstname.lastname@example.org, is author of the book “The Essential Guide to the Best (and Worst) Legal Sites on the Web,” available at www.lawcatalog.com. He is editorial director of The National Law Journal, www.nlj.com.
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