THE SEARCH ENGINE UPDATE
Dec. 4, 1997 - Number 18
About The Update
The Search Engine Update is a twice-monthly update of search engine news. It is available only to those people who have subscribed to Search Engine Watch, http://searchenginewatch.com/.
Please note that long URLs may break into two lines in some mail readers. Please cut and paste, should this occur.
This is part 1 of 2. Please allow a few hours for both parts to arrive.
I'm happy to announce that Search Engine Watch has been acquired by Mecklermedia and is now part of the Internet.Com network of sites. The partnership offers many advantages, which I'd like to share with you.
I've been maintaining Search Engine Watch and writing the Search Engine Report over the past year and a half. I've had some help, but it has pretty much been a one person operation. That means I've had to deal with server issues, mailing list hosting, ad insertions and numerous other tasks along with the actual editorial production of the site.
Now, over the coming months, these other tasks will be assumed by Mecklermedia, leaving me free to concentrate on the editorial production. I'll continue to produce the site and newsletter as I have in the past, and I'll have more time to keep up with the ever-increasing amount of news and developments about search engines.
That means even more content for newsletter readers and site visitors. The site will also move soon to a new server, which should make it more responsive in the face of continued traffic growth.
Please allow me a quick paragraph to thank a few people for helping Search Engine Watch get to this new point:
My wife, Lorna Harris, who's coped with the long hours I've put in and who recently started helping with the subscription processing (it's also her birthday today!). Michelle Robbins Counter, who's done a fantastic job over the past few months with ad administration. Steve McKay, of Colgreen Internet Development (http://colgreen.com), a friend who's pitched in with logos, CGI scripts and other server-related needs. Ken Spreitzer, of Maximized Software (http://maximized.com), who made the instant subscription processing possible. Eric Ward, for spreading the word via his URLWire (http://www.urlwire.com) when the former site I maintained was relaunched as Search Engine Watch earlier this year. I also appreciate the help of passing the word about the site from various list maintainers, including MMG's Internet Sales Discussion List (http://www.mmgco.com/isales.html) and Tenagra's Online Advertising Discussion List (http://www.o-a.com/).
Most of all, I'd like to thank newsletter readers, site visitors, and especially those who supported the site by becoming subscribers. Your feedback and subscription support helped me keep things going, and I look forward to continuing to provide the same quality information to everyone in the future.
And now, on to the news....
The Search Engine Reviews page and the Reviews Chart have been updated. The Search Engine EKGs will be updated through November 30 by next week or earlier -- promise! Links to all can be found via What's New.
Search Engine News
Search Survey Solicits Opinions
What do you think of the current state of Web searching? Search Insider and Search Engine Watch are teaming up to find out.
Here's your chance to speak your mind about the current state of search sites. Results from this survey will be published in January. Frustrated by the state of Web searching or excited by some new advance? This is your chance to make your voice heard!
The survey should only take about three minutes to complete. You won't be asked to give any personal information. We're only interested in your opinions and ideas.
Take the survey via the address below:
Lycos Adds Predetermined Listings
Lycos quietly began top ranking some of its own pages for searches of common words in November.
Do a search for some popular terms, such as "travel," "sports" or "games," and the first result that appears is a relevant Lycos web guide.
For example, a search for "internet" lists the Lycos Computer Guide first, which is channel-oriented page with web reviews, news, chat links and other information relating to computers.
To date, these type of keyword-linked suggestions to other content within a search engine's offerings have been made outside of the actual web page listings area.
For example, a search for "internet" on Excite will bring up a box called "Try This First" that prefaces the actual listings, but which is not part of them. Inside the box are various links, including one to the Excite Computers & Internet Channel.
Likewise, at Infoseek, the same search brings up related links in the left-hand column of the screen, while the main right-hand column remains devoted to actual search results.
Lycos goes beyond this by purposely pre-ranking its own pages in the listings themselves. Search engines have been loath to tamper with actual listings like this for a variety of reasons.
Open Text garnered bad publicity when it experimented with selling listings in the middle of last year. However, beyond this, search engines deflect the incredible pressure they feel from corporations and others to provide preferential listings by leaving results entirely to their algorithms.
Unfortunately for searchers, the algorithms face increasing pressure from spammers, or even the sheer number of legitimately relevant documents available. A search for "travel" is so generic that it can match many things. Because of this, Lycos is probably providing search engines users with what they are looking for by prelisting its own guides.
A good example of user confusion is a story that Excite likes to tell of how it was experimenting with its interface. A page was created with a search box and an HTML link directly underneath entitled "Microsoft Stocks." Users were then asked how they would search for Microsoft stocks. Most people ignored the link and instead gravitated to the search box, entering "microsoft stocks" as the search term.
By anticipating what a user is searching for and preferentially ranking certain pages, a search engine may thus better serve those who assume that keyword searching is the only way to find things. It can also be an excellent way to eliminate the spam problem that occurs for common, popular words.
For example, a search for "sex" with Lycos shows the top ten results dominated by manufactured pages from three web sites. Even at Infoseek, which has done the most to eliminate duplicate pages from dominating results, spammers have resorted to slight variations of domain names or multiple domains in order to claw their way to the top and keep others out.
But back at Lycos, that same search for "sex" is now prefaced by a link to the Lycos Supermodel guide. There's no reason Lycos or the other search engines couldn't preselect an entire top ten or top twenty list for these type of terms. Other search engines have hinted at doing this.
This type of action would immediately drop the incentive to spam, since relatively few people make it past the first page or two or results. Nor would search engine users likely to be disappointed by preselected listings. If anything, they will probably be grateful for this type of editing.
Of course, the idea may sound shocking to some webmasters, but relatively few sites are ever found for a single word, especially the popular ones. There's incredible competition for these terms, so the impact will mainly be against those who regularly engage in extreme measures to come up tops. Almost all multi-word queries would continue to be listed without preselection, leaving plenty of opportunity for web sites to be found.
The real complaints are likely to arise if preselection becomes tied to sales. Here, users may feel they aren't being provided with the best information, either according to an algorithm or an editor, but instead according to the bottom line. And in one case, Lycos is showing this type of preference. A search for "autos" or "cars" brings up this listed first:
CarPoint: Reviews, dealer invoices, more
Microsoft CarPoint: Complete guide to cars by make and model.
[Score: 100%” http://carpoint.msn.com/?src=lycos
There is no way the Lycos algorithm is kicking that listing up first -- it is clearly preferential, and the src=lycos ending the demonstrates this. That indicates to Microsoft, which runs CarPoint, that the visitor has come from Lycos. Possibly, some revenue sharing accompanies this traffic redirection.
Here, the issue of preferential listing becomes more dubious. Other major car sites are not getting an editorial boost. Nor is the link instead to a Lycos web guide. All this makes it likely that the preferential listing not originating in the users best interest but rather in the interest of Lycos.
A somewhat similar situation happens with "porn," which lists a Lycos chat area first. Here, Lycos is hijacking the popular term to benefit its chat area. But unlike with the Carpoint example, users probably won't complain and those operating porn sites aren't likely to gather a lot of sympathy.
Lycos says that the listing changes are part of a new strategy that will be announced at next week's Internet World. It also said that the preferential link treatment is still under development. They may be separated from the main listings in the future, more akin to how Excite and Infoseek are handling their suggested links. That will certain mute criticism in cases such as the CarPoint listing.
Lycos has also added a new way of ranking pages that depends on people. Within its community guides, recommended sites appear in response to ratings from its users.
To see this is action, visit a guide, such as the Internet Guide, below. A series of sub-guides will be displayed under Community Guides heading, such as "Spam In Your Mailbox." From this (or any) subguide, a series of web sites is displayed.
When you visit one of these sites, a small Lycos-related frame appears at the top of the screen. Here, users rate whether they like or dislike the site. The ratings influence what the WiseWire-powered spider seeks as new finds.
Lycos Internet Guide
Lycos Community Help
Read how new sites are found and rated for the community guides
Yahoo Changes Look, Referral Listings
Yahoo updated its results page look slightly on Nov. 25. A more prominent page header preceding the search results results directs people to related Yahoo categories, web sites, AltaVista search results, net events and news stories.
These alternative links are the same as previously presented, but they are made much more noticeable through the use of a colored table.
Also, Yahoo quietly changed the order in which it lists alternative search engines to use at the bottom of each search results page.
The order has been alphabetical since February of this year: AltaVista, Excite, HotBot, Infoseek, Lycos and WebCrawler. It has now changed to AltaVista, WebCrawler, HotBot, Lycos, Infoseek and Excite.
The change puts Yahoo's biggest competitors at the end (and leaves partner AltaVista at the beginning). Since people tend to click on the first links they come to, the change means that Yahoo's competitors are less likely to receive Yahoo-related traffic than before.
Search Engines Are Dead Discussion
"I submit that search engines are dying. In fact, I would say they are dead already and just don't know it yet - gone the way of the reciprocal link exchange and the "you have a cool page" award as an effective promotional tool. A victim of their own success." --Richard Hoy, Moderator, Online Advertising Discussion List
In November, subscribers to the Online Advertising Discussion List were treated to a wide-ranging and interesting discussion about search engines sparked by moderator Richard Hoy's initial post, above.
Richard had noted that search engines were responsible for only a fraction on the traffic generated for the Year 2000 web site that his company manages. Consequently, he postulated that all the worry over search engines was overblown.
The resulting posts were mixed. Some agreed, while others found search engines continue to be an important part of any marketing plan. This was especially true for those with small budgets or for small web sites.
Others noted that while search engines may only generate a small amount of overall traffic, many clients perceive them as crucial, which causes a headache for web marketers unable to improve listings.
"Seasoned Internet marketers know the search engines are only a very small tool when it comes to promoting a site. However, try telling that to my clients and the rest of the users out there," one person posted.
Discussion moved beyond just the marketing aspects of search engines, also. Comments were made about improving usability. Spam detection was one area addressed. One person felt some search engines paid only lip service to fighting spam, describing his experience when reporting an offense:
"I exchanged several email messages with a tech, who claimed to have checked a page I questioned and "saw nothing out of line". I wrote back with quoted code from the page in question, showing *7* separate title tags, EACH with a minimum of *19* iterations of the keywords in question....After I took the time to report and illustrate this, the tech agreed that this was decidedly improper, and stated that the page would be removed. 5 weeks later, it's still there."
I've consolidated most of the posts into one page, so that people can read the entire discussion. I encourage you to take the time and do so. The Online Advertising Discussion List is populated mostly by what I'd describe as mid-to-high level Internet marketers. These are people who often work with corporate clients to promote large web sites. Participants are extremely knowledgeable about web marketing and the Internet in general. Consequently, the discussion is good reading.
Search Engines Are Dead Discussion
LookSmart Expands On Netscape Net Search
LookSmart has now become a preferred search provider for the Netscape Net Search pages in Australia and the United Kingdom. It joins Excite and Yahoo in the Australian line-up and the same two plus Lycos in the UK line-up.
The new LookSmart regional editions can also be reached directly via the addresses below.
LookSmart United Kingdom
Family-Oriented Search Engine
Net Shepherd is a search engine with a twist designed to provide results suitable for families. A staff of volunteer "Net Explorers" has visited thousands of sites. If they deem a site suitable for families, it's placed into a database, along with a quality rating. When a search is done, it is forwarded to AltaVista. When the results come back, only pages from sites within the suitable database are displayed. Selecting a quality rating can further narrow the list.
Family Net Shepherd launched on Oct. 6, and this week, it got the distinction of being used by an anti-filtering group to demonstrate how filtering caused much content to be missed. Clearly, there is filtering being performed, so some content will be missed. However, I haven't been able to duplicate the extreme results the anti-filtering group found.
Regardless, those who don't like search engine filtering have access to the main AltaVista database. But those with children may find Net Shepherd to be of use. As with any search engine, relevancy is in the eye of the beholder.
Family Net Shepherd
Faulty Filters Report
Family Net Shepherd Response to Filters Report
Lycos Announces Profit -- Second To Go Green
Lycos announced a $107,000 profit for its last quarter, making it the second search engine after Yahoo to have a profitable showing. Yahoo showed its first profit in the fourth quarter of 1995 and has since had four other profitable quarters since then. The latest quarterly figures are as follows:
Yahoo: +$1.6 million
Lycos: +0.1 million
Infoseek: -$4.5 million
Excite: -$5.7 million
Lycos Reports Its First Profitable Quarter
WebWeek, Nov. 24, 1997
Lycos Eschews Buzzwords, Earns Cash
Red Herring, Nov. 20, 1997
The New Meta Tags Are Coming - Or Are They?
Some of you may have heard glimmerings of new way of meta tagging web sites that's under development by the W3 Consortium, the organization that sets standards for the web. A new standard is currently expected to emerge after the New Year.
The development is accompanied by a variety of acronyms: RDF, XML, and way back, there was some hype about MCF. Mixed in with all this is talk about Netscape and Microsoft either fighting with each other or shaking hands in agreement.
I wanted to provide some guidance as to what's happening, though this is an issue that will be revisited as standards develop.
Before stepping forward, it's important to understand where we are now.
The "meta" in "meta tags" arises from the term "metadata," which means data about other data. For example, a meta tag may describe the content of web page. That description is data about other data, the web page.
Any web page can have a variety of metadata associated with it. We currently use tags to define page descriptions, keywords, page authors, the date a page was created, a "child-safe" rating and more.
What most people don't realize is that there are no officially designated meta tags in HTML. There is a framework for meta tags, but the HTML specs do not definite exactly what meta tags exist and how they should be used.
In the simplest terms, the HTML specs say that meta tags have a name and value area, such as this:
That framework has been used by various groups to create meta tags that are used in different ways. For example, browser manufacturers have provided support for the meta refresh tag, which causes a browser to reload a new page or the same page after a few seconds.
Readers of this newsletter are most familiar with the two meta tags that enjoy widespread support by the search engines, the meta keywords and meta descriptions tag.
One survey found that 12% and 11% of web pages used those two tags, respectively. That sounds low, but those were actually the highest counts of any tags. Only usage of the generator tag approached those numbers (7.5%), and this tag is usually added automatically by authoring tools. Beyond these, other well-known tags include PICS (2.5%), a child-safe rating, and the content tag (2.2%), used to set the language character set of a web page.
Now I'm about to bring up all those new acronyms, hopefully in a way that helps them relate back to the meta tags and meta tagging concepts everyone is familiar with.
The new W3C format sets up a new way to describe metadata. It says that we have RESOURCES (web pages or entire web sites) that we wish to DEFINE (or describe) using a more efficient FRAMEWORK that currently exists.
Hence, the new name: Resource Definition Framework, or RDF. It sounds different, but it's about the same thing everyone is used to doing, which is defining a web site in useful ways.
Now I'm going to blow right through some of those other acronyms, discussing them only to let you know why they come up. In the grand scheme of things, they don't really matter.
We write existing meta tags in HTML. RDF tags (schemes is the proper term) are to be written using XML. XML is the successor language to HTML, meant to enhance how we currently author web pages.
As you might expect, Netscape and Microsoft have their own opinions on how a new language should be created. Likewise, they've had their own opinions on how metadata should be expressed. Earlier this year, Netscape was backing a plan called MCF, or Meta Content Framework. Microsoft put forth its own "Web Collections" proposal.
Now forget all that, because the big two browser makers are close to being friends, at least on the metadata front. They're behind RDF, so we should be all set for a new era in defining web pages, right?
Maybe. It's important to note that the search engines have not participated in the development of the new framework. The reaction I've gotten from various representatives has ranged from "What's RDF?" to "I suppose we might support it, if it makes sense."
Search engine support is crucial for success, as demonstrated by the lack of support for the existing Dublin Core meta tags.
These are a set of 15 tags allow a page to be labeled with a description, keywords, author notation, copyright statements and other information. They emerged out of a meeting of researchers, librarians, computer professionals and others in early 1995 (they met in Dublin, Ohio -- hence the name). They wanted to improve the ability to search for web documents.
Practically no one uses these tags, and the reason why is because none of the major search engines does anything with them. They don't index them, nor do they provide a way to search within the Dublin Core meta tag fields. (The more familiar meta description and keywords tags supported are NOT Dublin Core tags).
The WC3 hopes that perhaps with a new framework, the search engines (among others) will be more receptive to metadata. Perhaps it will give them incentive to reevaluate indexing more metadata.
"The whole thing has a chicken and egg process," said Ora Lassila, one of the editors of the RDF spec.
In other words, Lassila explained, you have to start somewhere, either with a framework or with tags. The W3C hopes that by providing the framework, support and adoption of new, useful tags will follow.
Realistically, a meta tag framework has already existed for several years, complete with the comprehensive Dublin Core set, and yet nothing has happened. Therefore, it's hard to see search engines suddenly deciding that metadata is a priority.
Add to this the fact that many at search engines do not trust metadata. It's fine to talk about how nice it would be if all web pages were categorized, but the search engines know from experience that people will lie, mislead or do whatever they can to get on top.
A further handicap is that the new RDF standard is not simple. The specs are still being formatted, but it is far more complicated to define metadata for the average user than under the existing system -- and that's a system that people already have trouble with.
Those are the negatives. How about some positives? There are a number of reasons the search engines might very well take notice and make use of the new framework.
First, the new system makes it possible to define information once for an entire site. There would be no need to label each page with an author tag, for example. A common file could contain information all crucial information, making it easier to maintain by authors and easier to gather by search engines.
Secondly, the system makes allowances for tags to be digitally certified. Plans are already in the works to make this possible for a revised PICS tag, so that there's some assurance a porn site couldn't pretend to be kiddie-safe.
Tim Bray, who's part of the RDF working group and formerly the founder of the Open Text search engine, envisions a system where there might be digitally certified descriptions. Imagine that third parties might assign web sites keywords, categories and classifications that could be trusted. Search engines might then be more likely to embrace metadata.
As for the complexity of writing RDF tags, they're not really meant to be the sort of thing you would copy and paste manually. XML is much more complicated than HTML, so authoring tools are expected to have all this stuff built in.
As the spec continues to be developed, you'll continue to hear lots of great things that will come of RDF from various people. If it's browser related and a browser company rep is talking about it, expect that it may come true. However, don't rely on the search-related aspects to happen until you hear search engine reps talking about them.
Don't forget, even if search engines don't take advantage of RDF, they may move ahead with other ways to communicate metadata. Inktomi, which powers HotBot and which will power the new Microsoft service, is considering enhancing its existing meta tags support after the New Year.
W3C Metadata Area
Keep up with what's happening with the RDF development. Lots of technical documents.
Dublin Core Metadata
Learn more about the Dublin Core tags, which emerged from a meeting 52 researchers, library professionals, computer scientists and others in Dublin, Ohio, back in March 1995.
Meta Attributes By Count
Statistics from a special robot run done in March 1997 to count the type of meta tags used. Produced by the author of "A Dictionary of HTML META Tags," http://vancouver-webpages.com/META/.
DSig 1.0 Signature Labels
How the W3C proposes making PICS labels digitally certified. Could digitally certified descriptions and keywords for documents be next?
Search Engines Conference Planned
"Search Engines and Beyond: a Landmark Conference" is planned to be held in Boston, Massachusetts. Dates are April 1-2 1998. Attendees include speakers from PLS, Infoseek, Northern Light, Inference, Verity, Excalibur and Automony, among others.
Conference Program And Information
Shopping Search Comes To Excite, Yahoo
Both Excite and Yahoo launched shopping search services at the end of November. In the past, they have both had partnerships with particular merchants such as Amazon. That made it a bit easier for visitors to these search engines to search the Amazon catalog for books. However, if there was a cheaper price at Barnes & Noble, too bad.
That's now changed. The search services are designed to query a variety of merchant sites. Now you search for a product and have your request be sent to various places, providing you with prices from different merchants.
It was hard to do a head-to-head comparison, because the search capability isn't fully working in either place. At Excite, you could comparison shop for software, but not for books. At Yahoo, the opposite was true.
Still, I gave it a go, just to see how well it seemed to work. My past online shopping experience has been to order CDs, books and attempts at getting software. Getting anyone to ship software out of the US is never much fun.
I started with Excite, clicking on the prominent "Shop Smarter This Holiday" link on the home page. That brought up a new page with product links arranged into categories. There were lots of "coming soons" for things like Flowers & Gifts and Home & Garden. But the computing section was OK, so I selected the software link.
This brought up another page with a search box. I entered "Drive Image" and quickly got a results screen with different prices for the software ranging from $43 to $70, from a variety of merchants. I was impressed to see matches from some of my favorite online shopping haunts, such as CDW.
It was a bit confusing, as one merchant listed the same software twice but didn't specify the why two versions were priced differently. However, this is something I've often seen in online catalogs.
Next I went to Yahoo and selected the "Holiday Shopping" link just below the search box on the home page. A new page of shopping topics came up.
I couldn't do the same software search, because the comparison search isn't working yet in that area. Instead, it will only query the "Spotlight" merchant, which in this case was Software.Net. So, I choose to search for books.
Here, I did a search for "Bots." The results list was a bit confusing, because it brought back any book with that word in it. I had to look closely at the small text to find the title I was looking for. However, it did give me a variety of prices. Neither Amazon nor Barnes & Noble were lowest. Instead, alt.bookstore came in $14.26. As with Excite, I could choose to buy directly from this screen.
Overall, both services did well, for the limited amount of product categories you can currently search under. I would personally use them to get a quick look, then probably more fully investigate the particular online merchant and its shipping policies rather than buying directly from the summary list.
That can be an important part of the price. For example, shipping multiple books to Britain is much less expensive via Barnes & Noble than via Amazon. That not something that will show up in these comparisons, though the Yahoo list does provide limited shipping information.
It's also refreshing to see a true, web-wide search service offered by both companies after so many recent, one-sided retailer deals. Unlike those deals, these search services are truly in the search engine user's interest.
Excite Shopping Search
Visa Shopping Guide By Yahoo
Yahoo, Excite Help Users Do Comparison Shopping
Web Week, Dec. 1, 1997
A nice look at the pressure to add comparison shopping balanced against the risk of upsetting newly acquired retailing partners.
Excite launches Net smart shopper
News.com, Nov. 26, 1997
Search Engine Notes
WWYP Additions on Hold
The World Wide Yellow Pages is upgrading its systems and says that new submissions should be processed again beginning mid-December.
World Wide Web Yellow Pages
Search Engine Articles
Capital Punishment in Search Engines
Free Pint, Nov. 20, 1997
A short, helpful rundown on how different search engines handle capitalization. With some, it makes no difference, while with others, it can yield different results when used.
1997 PC Computing MVP Awards
PC Computing, Nov. 1997
HotBot gets top honors, with Excite and Infoseek named as finalists.
Your Complete Guide To Searching The Web
PC Magazine, Dec. 2, 1997
An excellent, comprehensive guide to searching the web. Reviews of the major search engines, people finders, metacrawlers and more. Must reading, if you are trying to evaluate various tools. Editors' Choice awards go to HotBot and Yahoo. Other search engines weren't ranked, but Infoseek matches those two in terms of stars awarded in the query tests. WebCrawler also had a strong showing, and Northern Light got a nod as one to watch as it grows. ProFusion and MetaCrawler got Editors' Choice awards for the metacrawler category. One big flaw. Excite got knocked down for bad news search results, while WebCrawler was highly rated for its news search. The two services provide identical results -- they only have a different look and feel.
Internet World, Dec. 1997
Review of the major search engines, with AltaVista rated tops, followed closely by HotBot, then Infoseek and Northern Light. The review is not online.
Below are sponsor messages that ran in this month's issue of the Search Engine Report, which may be of interest to Search Engine Update readers.
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