Searching for a Faithful Companion

Search engines are indispensable tools for helping us find things on the Web. But sometimes we don't want 1,397,245 pages that match our search terms. Instead, we just want a simple response to our query, something that we can take away and act on with no further muss.

Browser companions are tools that expand and extend the capabilities of your favorite web browser. Many of these companions feature some sort of search capability, and these capabilities are often quite different from what search engines have to offer. Some are reference tools, used to look up specific facts. Others serve as resource discovery agents, helping you find Web sites similar to the one you're currently viewing. Still others offer unique search capabilities not found elsewhere.

Companions, in short, hold out the promise of helping you cut through the clutter of information overload, theoretically making your life a whole lot easier.

That's the theory. In reality, browser companions aren't the sort of idealized tools they may appear to be at first glance. They have problems that make them less useful than they might be, such as incompatibilities with other software, or consuming too many precious system resources. And since many companions are not fully integrated with your browser, you may forget about using them once their novelty has worn off, or may opt to uninstall them, since some compete for valuable space with other browser bars.

Another problem is that many of the companies that make browser companions, like so many others focusing on great ideas for the Net without necessarily having a great business plan, have been hurt in the dotcom fallout of the past year.

In this article, I'm going to look at three browser companions that started life with a bang and have since either changed business models or are still available but have an uncertain future. I'll say right up-front that I like all three and am rooting for their future success, but I have some concerns about all of them. Read on for a look at GuruNet, Flyswat, and Zapper.

GuruNet began life in September 1999, and was designed to provide instant facts on demand. All you needed to do was highlight a word on your computer display, click the search button, and GuruNet would automatically search reference sources including the American Heritage Dictionary, Roget´s Thesaurus, the Columbia Reference Encyclopedia, and sources providing news, sports, stocks and company profile information. GuruNet was like a virtual reference librarian with quick answers always at the ready.

As useful as it was, GuruNet's nifty answer engine apparently wasn't providing satisfactory financial results, so the company changed its name to Atomica in November 2000 and shifted focus to providing "solutions for the enterprise," meaning they repositioned themselves to sell their software to corporations needing help with "knowledge management."

The GuruNet browser companion, rechristened Atomica One-Click for Windows, is still available for download, but since the company's focus is now on the enterprise, it's not clear how well supported the companion is now or will be in the future.

Like GuruNet, Flyswat also made its debut in the autumn of 1999. Flyswat integrated seamlessly with the Internet Explorer browser, analyzing the content of the current web page, instantly transforming it into a rich resource with dozens or even hundreds of links to sources of additional information. These dynamically created new links overlaid the important keywords on the page. Clicking a link raised a pop-up menu which offered additional information related to the keyword, such as a company profile, stock quote, related books, download sites, etc.

Flyswat was purchased by NBCi in April 2000. At the time it seemed like Flyswat's future was assured, becoming part of a large, well-funded online powerhouse. Today, with NBCi's future in doubt, it's not clear whether Flyswat will be around much longer or not. The browser companion is still available on Flyswat's web site -- grab it soon if you want to try it.

Right about the time Flyswat was purchased by NBCi, Zapper released its browser companion. Like GuruNet, Zapper allowed you to highlight text rather than typing a query, but your query could be anything from a single word to a whole page. Like a meta search engine, Zapper searched different sources of information on the Web. But going far beyond most meta search engines, the sources were query-specific (medical sites for a medical query, for example). Zapper then analyzed the results, selected the best matches, and presented results with intelligently extracted annotations showing where the information was found.

Today, there is no link to Zapper's browser companion from the company's home page. Instead, there are links that seem to indicate Zapper has also shifted its focus away from the individual user and toward being integrated into corporate information systems. The Zapper companion is still available -- you just have to hunt around a bit to find the link to download it.

I'll be interviewing Zapper co-CEO Yossi Matias in the near future, and will write more about the company's plans in a later issue of SearchDay.

GuruNet, Flyswat, and Zapper all offer interesting, useful browser companions for searchers. All three are still available, and if you haven't tried them, I'd encourage you to give them a spin. But as you use them, keep in mind that change is a constant on the web, and your companion today may tomorrow take the road less travelled.

Over the course of the next few months, I'll be reviewing a number of browser companions that offer interesting or useful features for searchers. If you know of an interesting search-related browser companion that I should take a look at, please let me know using the contact form (link below).

GuruNet (Now Atomica One-Click for Windows)


Click the "Get Zapper Now" link to begin the download process; be sure to read the system requirements beforehand.

Search Utility Reviews & Articles
There are many software packages that let you search from your desktop or navigate the web more easily. Here, you'll find links to articles and reviews of various packages.

Search Utilities and Add-Ons
The search utilities and navigation tools described on this page are designed to help you find or discover information, often in non-traditional ways.

Search Headlines

NOTE: Article links often change. In case of a bad link, use the publication's search facility, which most have, and search for the headline.

That's it for this issue. Thanks again for subscribing, and watch for tomorrow's issue covering Scirus, a new science search engine from FAST and Elsevier.