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Meta Search Or Meta Ads?

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Do a search on two different search engines, and you'll almost certainly see differences when comparing the results each provides. That's because major search engines commonly have different databases of listings than their competitors and because they use different methods of sorting these listings in response to searches.

In short, each search engine has its own opinion of what's relevant for a particular topic. Because of this, "meta" search services are a popular method of getting a variety of "opinions" quickly from the various major search engines.

Meta search services, also called metacrawlers or meta search tools, send your query out to many major search engines at once, then bring back the results to you, saving you from having to visit each major search engine individually.

What people may not realize is that many meta search services are now also bringing back paid placement listings and mixing these in among the more traditional editorial-style results that they retrieve. In fact, a Search Engine Watch survey shows that some meta search services are providing results where more than half of their listings are paid links.

Of course, paid listings have also come to the major search engines over the past year. However, paid listings make up far less of the content presented by those search engines when compared to some meta search services. In addition, paid links at the major search engines are generally separated in some way from their more editorially-derived search results. In contrast, the meta search services generally do not have such delineation, making it often unclear which links are paid.

The Meta Search Engine Survey

Search Engine Watch reviewed eight well-known or notable meta search services, to determine to what degree they brought back results from major search engines versus information from paid listing services. The results of the survey are designed to help you select meta search services that provide access to the widest number of major search engines, since that is the reason most people have traditionally used meta search services. The survey also helps you understand which meta search services are serving up a high proportion of paid listings.

The Major Search Engines

What are the major search engines? Obviously, everyone has their own opinion. For this survey, the major search engines are those that provide access to unique and well-known catalogs of the web. Specifically, these are the 10 services considered "major" for this survey:

  • AltaVista
  • Direct Hit (HotBot)
  • Excite (WebCrawler)
  • FAST Search (Lycos)
  • Google
  • Inktomi (iWon)
  • LookSmart (MSN Search)
  • Northern Light
  • Open Directory (AOL Search/Netscape Search)
  • Yahoo

An ideal meta search service would provide access to results from all of these search engines. See the notes page for further explanation about why these search engines were selected as major and how the partnership relationships (shown in parenthesis) were factored in.

Paid Placement Search Engines

At paid placement search engines, sites are listed because they pay. There are often unpaid results also available, but these usually are buried behind paid listings for popular terms.

Paid listings are not necessarily bad. In fact, some paid placement search engines do much work to ensure that the listings that they carry are somehow relevant to the search terms they appear for. Indeed, some paid placement search engines may sometimes have better results for a particular search than the "editorial" results provided by some traditional search engines.

Given this, a meta search engine should not be faulted for carrying paid listings. The real concern is when they provide a large degree of paid listings in relation to the editorial-style listings that have traditionally been obtained from the major search engines.

Picture it this way. Let's say you've received a newspaper every day. The front page has always had articles and no ads. One day, the front page begins having a few small ads at the bottom. As time goes by, half of the front page is filled with ads. Your paper has changed from what it once was.

This is what has happened with some meta search services. The ratio of "articles" in their main results has dropped. Moreover, unlike with a newspaper, it can be difficult to immediately recognize what's an ad and what's not.

What They Query:
Major Search Engines Vs. Paid Search Engines

The first concern is what search engines your meta search service carries. The more paid placement search engines it carries, the harder it will likely be to locate editorial-style links. The chart below shows which major editorial-style major search engines are queried versus paid placement search engines. The percentage of paid search engines queried is also shown. See the notes page for further explanation about how the percentage was calculated. For links to the search engines named, see the references at the bottom of this page.

Meta Search Service Major Search Engines Carried Paid Search Engines Carried # of Major # of Paid % Paid
Dogpile AltaVista, DirectHit, LookSmart, FAST (via Lycos), Open Directory (& Web Catalog), Yahoo ah-ha, Bay9, BrainFox, ePilot, FindWhat, GoTo, Kanoodle, Sprinks, ValleyAlley 6 9 60%
Mamma Direct Hit (via Ask Jeeves), LookSmart (via MSN Search), FAST (via Lycos), Yahoo ah-ha, ePilot, FindWhat, Savvy, Sprinks 4 5 56%
MetaCrawler AltaVista, DirectHit, Excite, Google, LookSmart, FAST (via Lycos), Open Directory (via MetaCatalog) FindWhat, GoTo, Kanoodle, Sprinks 7 4 36%
qbSearch AltaVista, Direct Hit (& HotBot), Excite, FAST, LookSmart, Northern Light, Yahoo FindWhat, GoTo, Sprinks, ValleyAlley 7 4 36%
Search.com AltaVista, Direct Hit (& HotBot), LookSmart, FAST (via Lycos), Open Directory, Yahoo FindWhat, GoTo, Sprinks 6 3 33%
Ixquick AltaVista, FAST, Inktomi (via HotBot), LookSmart (& MSN Search), Open Directory (via AOL Search), Yahoo FindWhat (via Excite), GoTo 6 2 25%
ProFusion AltaVista, Excite, FAST (& Lycos), LookSmart (& MSN Search), Open Directory (via AOL Search & Netscape Search), Yahoo GoTo 6 1 14%
Vivisimo AltaVista, Excite, FAST (& Lycos), LookSmart (via MSN Search), Open Directory, Yahoo None 6 0 0%

Percentage Of Paid Links

It's also interesting to consider what percentage of the total links on the pages presented by meta search engines are paid listings. This is because "timeouts" and default settings, both explained more below, can further reduce the number of editorial listings presented. This is important because most people do not change defaults and do not go beyond the first page of results.

The chart below shows what percentage of the links shown on the first page of results from a meta search service were paid listings. The search query was "canada," done using each meta search service's default settings. See the notes page for further explanation about how this test was performed.

Meta Search Paid Links Total Links Paid %
Dogpile 30 35 86%
qbSearch 66 98 67%
MetaCrawler 13 25 52%
Mamma 6 15 40%
Search.com 10 29 34%
ProFusion 2 14 14%
Ixquick 1 10 10%
Vivisimo 0 20 0%

In this test, both Dogpile and qbSearch suffer because of the way they "stitch" result from various search engines one after each other, rather than mixing all the links together. The Meta Search Players page explains this more. On the other hand, users of these services who fail to change default settings and who fail to go beyond the first page of results are likely to encounter a large number of paid links.

It's also important to note that the chart above could vary depending on the time of day and the query used. Ideally, a battery of different searches would have been run at different times of the day, then averages generated. In the future, this type of extremely time-consuming test may be performed. However, the chart above -- when viewed in conjunction with other information about the search engines carried by meta search services -- does give you a better idea of what you are likely to receive from a particular meta search service.

Major Search Engines Carried

Another thing to consider is just how many major search engines it is possible to query using a meta search service. If you want to search as broadly as possible and aren't afraid to customize your meta search service, top choices are shown on the chart below. Also shown is the percentage of total major search engines that each meta search service carries.

Meta Search Engine # of Major
Search Engines
% of Major
Search Engines
MetaCrawler, qbSearch 7 70%
Dogpile, Ixquick, ProFusion, Search.com, Vivisimo 6 60%
Mamma 4 40%

Remember, the chart above shows what's possible to reach at each meta search service, assuming you take advantage of customization options. The Meta Search Players page discusses this in more depth. If you don't customize and instead use default settings, you may query fewer major search engines than shown on the chart. Also, the next chart reflects what you are likely to receive if you stick with default settings.

Percentage Of Links From Major Search Engines

Meta search services only serve up results from search engines that send their listings within a certain time period. Otherwise, a long delay in getting results from one search engine can prevent the meta search user receiving results quickly from other search engines that are available.

Search engines that don't respond fast enough are "timed out" by meta search services. Timeouts can mean that fewer major search engines are queried than you are expecting.

Similarly, some meta search services may not query all the search engines they offer unless you make use of customization options. This can also reduce the number of links you receive from major search engines.

To illustrate the effect of timeouts and default settings, the next chart shows how many editorial listings from major search engines were found for a search on "canada" versus all the listings that were presented. See the notes page for further explanation about how this test was performed.

Meta Search Links From Major Search Engines Total Links % From Major Search Engines
Vivisimo 20 20 100%
Ixquick 7 10 70%
ProFusion 8 14 57%
MetaCrawler 12 25 48%
Mamma 7 15 47%
qbSearch 33 98 34%
Search.com 5 29 17%
Dogpile 5 35 14%

Top Picks

Both Ixquick and Vivisimo both stand out from this survey as "editor choice" selections. These meta search services give you access to a wide number of major search engines when using their default settings. In addition, paid listings do not crowd out listings from the major search engines. They are non-existent at Vivisimo and fairly limited at Ixquick.

Next as top choices, consider MetaCrawler and qbSearch. Both provide access to a wide-range of major search engines, assuming you are willing to make use of their customization options. qbSearch makes this especially easy by letting you choose what to search right from its home page. However, if you go with the default options at either service, the links from major search engines will likely feel lost among links from paid placement services.

In the middle of the pack, ProFusion also offers access to a wide-range of major search engines, assuming you customize it. If you don't, the problem isn't too many paid links. Rather, it is simply that you may get too many results from alternative non-paid search services, rather than major search engines.

Next to last in the survey are Search.com and Dogpile, in that order. They both have potential if you make use of their customization options, though not as much as MetaCrawler and qbSearch. Left to their default settings, they are likely to be disappointing -- especially Dogpile, which will overwhelm you with paid listings.

Coming in last is Mamma. It offers the least access to major search engines and a relatively high use of paid listings.

More details about each of these services can be found on the Meta Search Players page.

Top Tips

When selecting a meta search service, look for one that gives you access to the largest number of major search engines, as that's the main reason most people use these tools. Then, be sure to adjust the default settings to ensure you are getting back those results.

Don't be afraid if you see paid listings -- after all, you might be interested in these, and they help keep the service free for you to use. There is nothing wrong with paid listings. Advertisements have their place at search engines, just as they do at many other media outlets. However, if you are concerned you cannot recognize the paid listings, message the meta search service and ask for paid links to be clearly identified or placed in their own section of the results page.

Finally, keep in mind that the actual relevancy of meta search results obtained was not evaluated in this survey, only where the content was derived from. If your favorite meta search service provides results you find relevant, then by all means, stick with it. However, if you have felt that relevancy has declined over the past year, greater use of paid content might be to blame. Consider exploring other options.

More Information

Meta Search Engine Survey: Players
More details about how the meta search services performed when reviewed in this survey.

Meta Search Engine Survey: Notes
More details on how the survey was conducted and scored.

Meta Search Engines
Links to major meta search engines, including those reviewed in this survey.

Major Search Engines
Links to major search engines mentioned in this survey.

Paid Placement Search Engines
Links to major paid placement search engines.

Pay For Placement?
Articles about paid placement issues can be found here. Read them to understand both the good and the bad to paid placement.


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