Little search engines that could

Four alternatives to Google for finding answers online.

By , Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor

All hail Google, the undisputed king of search. It’s hard to imagine other sites toppling the online giant – and few have the hubris to try.

Jimmy Wales, the mind behind Wikipedia, announced in late March that he was pulling the plug on Wikia Search, his attempt at a user-generated search engine. The project couldn’t attract enough users and money.

But Google isn’t perfect. While some call it simple, quick, and effective, others describe the site as incomplete, dull, and a lowest common denominator.

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Here are four search alternatives to cut through the Web and find what you’re looking for.

Viewzi: Search with a cherry on top. If Google is the vanilla ice cream of search engines, Viewzi is the row of colorful toppings. The site relies on Google’s computers to serve up good responses, but then sprinkles in some graphical flavor to sweeten the whole package. Viewzi offers more than a dozen ways to sift through search results – from timelines and screen shots to cross references and (our favorite) photo tag cloud.

Mahalo: Human-powered search. Mahalo is half Web directory, half über-search engine. Its team pulls together information, videos, and links on thousands of topics. If they haven’t gotten to your query yet, then Mahalo delivers search results from Google, Yahoo, Ask, and five other major sites. You’ll find the answer one way or another.

ChaCha: Search on the go. While most of these services are computer-bound, ChaCha is built for cellphones. Call 1-800-2CHACHA and leave a message with your question. You can also text the question to 242242 (ChaCha). Two minutes later – “ding” – your answer is ready. A friendly and free response pops up on your phone as a text message. These replies come from ChaCha’s speedy team of paid searchers, who do the online hunt for you. Their paychecks come from the short ads at the bottom of your answer.

Powerset: The future of search. This young entrant, scooped up last year by Microsoft, actually reads what you write. While most search engines only care about keywords, Powerset stands as an early example of “semantic search” – or teaching computers to understand natural language. It cares about the words in between the nouns. And, like ChaCha, Powerset wants to find an answer, instead of a list of links that might find you the answer. After parsing your question, it sniffs out details from Wikipedia. Warning to searchers: consider the source. Wikipedia entries are incomplete, possibly inaccurate, and focus more on whos and whats than whens and whys. With Microsoft’s help, Powerset hopes to refine the algorithm and expand its sources, maybe one day allowing the site to search the entire Web.

Also in the news: Wolfram Alpha.

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