FAST Search and Transfer isn't known for stealth technology, but it should be. Its AllTheWeb.com search engine has snuck up on all of the major search engines with new features, speed and customization capabilities, and is now a viable challenger to pack-leader Google.
"There are four new technologies that will drive customers to the site," said Bob Thomas, spokesperson for FAST. These include dynamic clustering of results, real-time news search, a "pre-analysis" tool that helps refine search queries, and enhanced user interface and customization options, according to Thomas.
Two of the new features, dynamic clustering of results and real-time news search are immediately apparent when you run a search on the updated service. Clustered results appear at the top of a result page in a box labeled "Beta FAST Topics." Each result is displayed as hyperlinked category topic next to a yellow folder.
FAST pulls these clustered results from the Open Directory Project database, including the first 200 results that match the query. When an existing ODP category matches a query, it is displayed as a FAST topic. If there are no suitable matches in the ODP, the search engine creates new categories on the fly.
This approach to categorization -- combining existing, editorially created categories with dynamically generated categories based on the query is an interesting feature that can really help you get pinpoint results very quickly.
Beneath the FAST topic categories are links to the latest news stories related to your query. By default, links to the two freshest stories are displayed, indicating how recently they were updated. The total number of current news stories associated with your topic is displayed in a link, allowing you to quickly jump to nothing but news results.
Web results appear beneath news links. The integration of news and web results is a very handy feature for searchers looking for comprehensive information on timely events. FAST's news comes from over 3,000 online news sources, with a recrawl occurring every two hours. The company claims that news is updated at a rate of up to 800 articles per minute.
"We think our users want the freshest information, and they want it in real time," said FAST's Thomas.
The new "pre-analysis" tool is also interesting. Essentially, the search engine automatically tries to improve your results by rewriting your queries. This is usually done by adding quotes around common phrases, and removing words from your query not relevant to the search -- a practice employed by most search engines.
What makes AllTheWeb's implementation unique is that it shows you exactly how your query was re-written in a box to the right of your results labeled "About Your Query." This serves two useful purposes: First, it lets you see exactly what the engine used as your query, unlike the "black box" approach used by other engines that do similar query preprocessing without showing you what was done. Second, it's a great learning aid. By studying how AllTheWeb modifies your query, you can learn to write better queries on your own.
AllTheWeb's pre-analysis goes beyond simply quoting phrases and removing stop words. The system does a good job of recognizing when words are an essential part of a query rather than "noise" words that should be thrown away.
For example, the query "the who" returns both categories and web results related to the popular rock band (though none for the venerable Dr. Seuss character, as my children would expect). The same query on Google returns no results, with a suggestion to try different keywords. Even using quotes and the plus sign to force inclusion of the words returned no results in the top ten for the rock band using the same query at Google.
AllTheWeb has extended its customization options for all of the new features. If you don't like the new category clustering for example, you can opt to display it in collapsed format, or disable it altogether.
You have two customization options for real-time news. As with categories, you can disable the feature if you don't like it. From the advanced search for news page you can also limit your search to any or all of 9 major news categories, change the number of results displayed per page, and limit results by freshness, ranging from the past two hours to the past week.
Finally, you can also control how the engine rewrites your queries. The default is to rewrite and display the new query. You may also set this option to "always rewrite queries," "only make rewrite suggestions," or "never rewrite queries."
The new additions to AllTheWeb make it a serious contender as an alternative to Google or any other engine that you're currently using frequently. And from all indications, the folks at FAST plan to keep up the pace of making improvements and enhancements to their flagship search engine. Next on the horizon: an index containing well over 2 billion web "objects," according to FAST spokesperson Thomas.
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