Which search engine is top of the pile?

With the news earlier of Google's improvements to its search engine, we thought it best to put it through its paces up against the rival pack in the shape of the current Google, Microsoft's Bing, Mr Wolfram's Wolfram Alpha, Facebook's new search offering and the real-time search on Twitter.

We've used three phrases with the idea behind each to offer a slightly different challenge, the like of which a good engine should be able to deal with.

Phrase 1 - Chaffinch
Phrase 2 - Best campsite in wales
Phrase 3 - Musicians who have kicked the bucket this year

Phrase 1 represents a simple one-word search. Say you're reading an article and you don't know what a chaffinch is, so you reach for the internet to find out. It's a bread and butter search.

The idea behind Phrase 2 is a sales type enquiry. We could be looking for a pair of shoes, the latest laptop or where find tickets for the opera but in this case it's trying to book a camping holiday in Wales. Naturally, we want to have a fantastic holiday, so it's "best campsite in wales".

Lastly, every good search engine should have an appreciation of semantics rather than literal meaning, so Phrase 3 gives us the "kick the bucket" idiom - no part of which gives a clue to its meaning - and matches it up with a genuine query of events. Let's see how they fare:

Google

Phrase 1 - 411,000 results
The top result here is for a definition of the word (in this case a bird) on Wikipedia. The information is direct and straight to the point. Next up is a possible match on Wiki again for a "Blue Chaffinch". Result three gives us the encyclopedia Britannica article on the creature while Google's image search kicks in at number 4 giving us four pictures. There are no videos. No unboxings.

Phrase 2 - 10,100,000 results
Top of the list is a Guardian newspaper top 50 with some suggestions for you. This is followed by some "How to" guides on finding the best campsite in Wales - something we thought we were asking Google to do for us. The results are dominated by newspaper travel supplements.

Phrase 3 - 57,100 results
Top result is a link to a band called the bucket boys on wischlist.com, before then suggesting we might want to learn more about Kick the Bucket staring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Michael Jackson signs in at number 5 and 6. Number 5 is from Yahoo's omg site while zoklet.net/ clocks in at number 6.

Google Caffeine

Phrase 1 - 347,000 results
The top results give us RSPB and Wikipedia page entries for the bird, images, videos and one entry for the Chaffinch Business Development Centre based in London, E1.

Phrase 2 - 2,920,000 results
A good range of pages here. The top results are a "how to" on finding the best campsites in Wales, the feature on Welsh campsites in the Guardian and a top 50 best camping sites - some of which are in Wales. All the results offered something useful on the query.

Phrase 3 - 71,400 results
Google struggles to return any really useful results here. The first is a link to a band called the bucket boys on wischlist.com. It's not until result number 6 where you get your first Michael Jackson reference, but on the whole the results don't really understand what we are asking.

Bing

Phrase 1 - 224,000 results
The same top two entries here, no videos but a few more different website pages dedicated to the profiles of the bird. No business centre but instead a company offering fabric dyes and the website for the Chaffinch family of Maryland and their ancestry.

Phrase 2 - 1,960,000 results
Bing defintely got the point here but seems to have ignored the "best" part. We get a list of pages specifically on campsites in Wales, some of which are reviews based, but the results seem slighty more like official advice rather than anything user generated.

Phrase 3 - 157,000 results
Pretty poor results here. The first is to a site that looks like it might be relevant, however a broken link sends us nowhere. Second on the list is to a page explaining:

"If Joseph Stalin inspired some harsh songs during his lifetime (see Advice To Joe, No, No Joe and Mr. Stalin, You're Eating Too High Off The Hog), his death ignited even more vitriol. Stalin Kicked The Bucket is one of two examples heard on the ATOMIC PLATTERS box set, along with Joe Stalin's Dead (Good Riddance), that dance on the dictator's freshly dug grave."

MJ doesn't even get a mention on the first page.

Wolfram Alpha

Phrase 1 - Two pages
The first page on show gives us the Latin name for the bird, its taxonomy and other representations of, essentially, the same infortmation. If you click over to "Chaffinch as a word", there's pronounciation and a dictionary definition.

Phrase 2 - 0 results
WolframAlpha isn't sure what to do with our input.

Phase 3 - 0 results
Once again we get the "WolframAlpha isn't sure what to do with your input." Seems if you want to know the square root of 5 (2.2360679774997896964091736687312762354406183596115257242708 by the way) then great, but need to know who died in 2009 from the world of music, no.

Facebook

Phrase 1 - 23 results
All groups, including the "Chaffinch Birdwatch Society" and the less useful sounding "Chris Chaffinch the Almighty".

Phrase 2 - 3 results
Again all groups but some definitely useful information that you're not getting on the others. One group is for a party going on in a campsite in Rhossili Bay and the other two are invitation groups to go camping in Wales. A very Facebook, social angle to these results. Interestingly enough, the descriptions to the groups themselves do offer an opinion as to which campsites in the area are best.

Phase 3 - 0 results
Seems our friends aren't talking about dead musicians in the last 30 days - Jackson died in June. So we get 0, however it seems a lot of our friends have been on holiday and are keen to show off their "Holiday snaps" but that doesn't really help us does it.

Twitter

Phrase 1 - 23 (ranging from 7 hours ago to 10 days ago)
People are indeed talking about chaffinches. Mostly it's local sightings with the odd twitpic and small handful of metaphors. One result was also from a bird blogger.

Phrase 2 - 1 result (7 days ago)
"Back from a blissful weekend on a campsite with what had to be the best views in Wales. But very very sleepy!" says @larapage. Contact Lara, find out where she went and Bob's your uncle. Not exactly an orthodox way to get information but it works.

Phase 3 - 0 results
Even the twitterverse isn't going to help us find out who had died this year in the music business. Again it's great for finding out what's trending - @ev's just had a baby for example - but, when it comes to answering specific questions, it doesn't give us what we were looking for.

Which one to choose?

So what's the best search engine to use currently? It seems Google current offering rather than the new sandbox variant. Bing's a strong runner but WolframAlpha's so specific that by the time you actually need it, you'll have probably forgotten it exists.

Facebook and Twitter, while useful showed that they really do depend on what people are saying, with Facebook even more reliant on your friends talking about stuff that you want to search for. However, while they may not return anything like the same number of results, there's cerrtainly scope to use them for review and opinion based searches.

It’s also clear from our 3 phase test that none of the search engines have cracked general questions that aren’t keyword heavy. We were hoping that WolframAlpha or the new Google search might give us a possible solution, but it seems not. As it goes, the latter does on average return fewer results but do you really care beyond the first couple of pages?

So, for now, stick to the big G and let us know your experiences with the search engine you use in the comments below.


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