Niche Navigators

A guide to searching for non-Google answers

| March 15, 2007

Trying to rival the internet giant Google is a formidable task for any company trying to start up a new search engine. Without hope of being as comprehensive as Google, smaller search engine companies are trying a variety of different tacks to carve out their own niche in the market. As Verne Kopytoff reports in the San Francisco Chronicle, specialized search engines are gaining in popularity and prominence. The advantages of a niche search engine include more targeted information and interfaces that are easier to navigate. Kopytoff lists his own alternative search engines, and we've added a few more to get your specialized search started.

According to Kopytoff, large search engines often have trouble with health-related searches 'because of the complex nature of the topic and the proliferation of information of dubious quality and spam websites.' A variety of health-centric search engines have emerged to give guidance. One is Healthline, a site that allows you to search the web, news, or dictionary for health tips. What makes this site unique is a feature called HealthMap, a flow chart of clickable topics related to your search word. For example, the keywords 'kidney stones' lead to a box on stone analysis, which leads to four different boxes of stone types. Another health site called Medstory refines searches by compiling lists of related topics with bar graphs representing the amount of correlating information. The site has partnered with the Wall Street Journal and to help improve the results.

With the massive amount of tech info on the web, sometimes bigger search engines can't sort their way through the jumble. Two physics graduate students created Octopart, a tech-savvy shortcut to comparison shopping for electronic parts. The simple but speedy site shows product results from catalogs of distributors such as Allied Electronics and Mouser. Another option for the tech set is Scirus, a search engine about science and only science. The niche engine has even copped a few awards for its efforts, which include accessing information from more than 300 million science-specific websites and providing 'deep' searches that dig into the hidden portions of websites.

For those who think big search engines are too impersonal, there are a few engines that can pair you with a guide to ease your searching woes. ChaCha is making a name for itself as one of the only search engines that pairs you with a live person somewhere in cyberspace who will do your dirty work. Much like a chat room, ChaCha connects users with a guide via instant messaging. The guide asks about your query and suggests possible results. The site aims to connect you with someone knowledgeable in your area and encourages users to rate the helpfulness of guides so future queries can be answered more effectively. Another similar site (whose appeal may be limited to lonely teenage boys) is Ms. Dewey, a search engine guided by video footage of a sassy brunette. The interface is set up as a face-to-face interaction between you and Ms. Dewey. The site is not quick, though. In fact you'll spend most of your time watching her leer at you in between taking shots of liquor and checking her cell phone.

Google's lack of structure in search results can be overwhelming. The key for Kosmix, on the other hand, is categorization. Subject-based searches narrow your results immediately, but the drawback is that the site is still evolving -- offering only six main-categories so far. Users can chose from health, video games, US politics, travel, autos, and finance, and results can be broken down further (for example, politics splits into liberal and conservative categories). On the shopping front, a number of image-based sites are popping up. One example is Like, a site that allows users to find clothing and accessory items that look similar. Online shoppers can search for prices and stores to purchase tons of shoes, shirts, and other consumer goods. But the real bonus is the ability to track down and buy fashions like the ones their celebrity idols don in magazines. Lastly, Oodle specializes in classified listings. With access to 20 million ads for rentals, merchandise, personals, and other fare throughout the United States and United Kingdom, users can surely find a new apartment, a puppy, or at least a date.

Go there >> Small Search Engines Try to Get a Grip

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