Finding Disaster Coverage At Search Engines

NOTE: This is both an analysis of how search engines reacted to the terrorist attacks in the United States and advice on how to find the latest information about the disaster. Click here to bypass the analysis and skip straight to the advice.

Following the unprecedented terrorist attacks on the United States today, web users turned en masse to search engines for information. It took those services some time to adjust to the demand, but as the day progressed, many came up to speed.

AltaVista Immediately Relevant

At first, the shining star among the major services was AltaVista. This is because AltaVista has a partnership with news crawler Moreover and integrates Moreover's news headlines right into its regular listings.

As a result, a search for "world trade center" on AltaVista brought up news stories about the tragedy less than two hours after the event, if not earlier.

Example of links to news headlines within AltaVista search results

In contrast, Google was a great disappointment. Google also integrates news headlines into its search results, but its news coverage is generally far less comprehensive or reliable than at AltaVista. That certainly proved the case when, two hours after the attack, a search for "world trade center" showed no indication in Google's results that a mass disaster had happened.

Other search engines proved no more useful than Google, immediately after the attacks. Searches for "world trade center" at places such as MSN Search, Ask Jeeves and Yahoo, for example, brought back no listings relevant to the current catastrophe. Nor did selecting special news links, when available, from their home pages.

Part of this was no doubt due to the fact than many major search engines are based out of the West Coast of the United States. When the attacks occurred in New York and Washington DC, people weren't even in their offices, on the West Coast.

Finally Reacting To Disaster

As the day moved on, the search engines started getting their acts together. About four hours after the attack, Google placed links on its home page to news coverage, including a link to a page copied directly from CNN.

Links to news headlines from the Google home page,
about four hours after the attacks.

Though probably violating CNN's copyright, the Google will no doubt be forgiven, given that many web users were unable to access the CNN site itself to get coverage. The "cached" copy of the page was fully attributed to CNN, along with links to CNN and a note that the copy was provided as a public service.

Despite adding links to the Google home page, nothing changed in Google's search results themselves. That was a problem, because many users will gravitate to a search engine's search box and ignore relevant information on the search engine's home page. In other words, if you don't talk to them within your search results, you aren't talking to them at all.

To solve this, Google changed again about six hours after the attacks, adding a special link that appeared in response to a search for "world trade center."

Special Google link leading to terrorism information.

That special link came at the top of Google's results, where an ad might ordinarily reside. Indeed, the link even said "Sponsored Link" next to it, though this was almost certainly because Google couldn't quickly remove the standard wording for links that appeared in the ad area.

Clicking on the link brought users to a special "Current Events" page, which listed major news sources and cached articles from major news sources, as well as the home pages of United Airlines and American Airlines, both of which were difficult or impossible for many web users to reach.

New Google "Current Events" page leading to news sources and
relevant cached web pages.

About four hours after the attacks, other search services also began making significant alterations. AltaVista was already ahead of its competitors in providing relevant links right in its results, but the service added a special "news" search box right at the top of its home page, to better direct users to its news specific results.

Special "News Search" box added to AltaVista home page,
four hours after the attacks.

By six hours after the attack, the majority of AltaVista's "above the fold" area at the very top of the home page was devoted to the attacks, along with a phone number on how people could donate blood.

News dominates the AltaVista home page, six hours after the attacks.

At Yahoo, about four hours after the disaster, the "mantle" box was changed to put information about the attacks on the home page. That box normally promotes things like shopping and auctions. It was replaced so that, as at AltaVista, the disaster was the dominate page element.

Yahoo brings prominently positions news coverage about four hours after the attacks.

In contrast, at the same time, coverage at Lycos was harder to spot. No above the fold positioning was conducted. Instead, the site looked fairly normal, though it did contain several links to coverage.

Lycos home page, with links to coverage of the attacks.

MSN home page, with links to coverage of the attacks.

Over at MSN, the same situation as with Lycos was true. Four hours after the attack, the front page had been altered -- and more substantially than with Lycos -- but not to the extent as with places like Yahoo or AltaVista.

Fixing The Results

How about the all important results pages? At Yahoo, the first major link lead to its news coverage, while the remainder of the page stayed "normal," in that no results were relevant to the disaster.

Yahoo results, four hours after the attack, with link to news coverage.

Over at Lycos, the results hadn't changed at all. There was absolutely nothing to indicate a terrorist attack had occurred, in response to a search on "world trade center," four hours after the attack.

Ask Jeeves, which should have been right on top of this type of search need, was no better four hours afterwards. The search engine made its name by having human editors review and compile relevant links to come up for top searches. Four hours after the attacks, no such links were seen. Nor had the home page been altered in any way.

Things changed at Ask Jeeves by six hours after the attack. A new link had been added just under the search box, on the home page: "Get the latest news on America Under Seige (sic)." In turn, this brought up a special results page. Similar relevant links also began appearing in response to a search for "world trade center."

Ask Jeeves results, six hours after the attack.

An Ask Jeeves spokesperson also said that all travel ads were removed from the site, as deemed as inappropriate, given the hijackings.

Inktomi, which provides the main results that appear at iWon and which also appear at other search engines, said it "stuffed" some queries by the fourth hour after the attack, so that at least one relevant link would appear in response to searches about the attack.

For example, a search "world trade center" was programmed to list CNN first, with a special description that said, "CNN is following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon." Without this stuffed link, results at a place like iWon would have been embarrassingly absent in acknowledging the disaster.

Example of "stuffed" results for CNN appearing at iWon in
response to a "world trade center" search.

As it was, it was no doubt odd to some people to find the third site listed offering a "live" view from the top of the World Trade Center. This is simply an example, discussed more in the tips area below, of how a search engine needs time to refresh its database with new information. A similar link could also be found at Google, so iWon's Inktomi results are not unique with this problem. In addition, it also takes time for the web sites themselves to make updates. Until those are done, there's no easy way for the crawler-based search engines to get their own listings updated.

At Netscape Search, a spokesperson said its results were going to be changed so that the "Netscape Recommends" section would have relevant results for queries related to the attacks, but these hadn't been added, when the site was checked eight hours after the attacks.

Sibling service AOL Search had such links up at least six hours after the attack and says they were actually added within minutes of it happening. AOL also said many people in its chat areas are seeking out and passing along information.

Example of programmed link appearing at AOL Search in response to a "world trade center" search.

Heavy Use & Search Requests

Traffic to search engines and portals was up substantially, up to ten times normal, according to representatives.

"We have seen traffic to the home page, and specifically Lycos News and Wired News, increase ten-fold since the onset of this morning's tragedy," said Lycos spokesperson Kathy O'Reilly.

At MSN Search, traffic was said to be twice normal.

What were people searching for? News sites with coverage of the attacks or direct links to coverage itself.

Lycos estimated that the term "CNN" received 160 times as many searches during the three hour period yesterday immediately following the attacks as it normally gets during an average 12 hour period.

Also at Lycos, the phrase "World Trade Center" received over 50 times as many searches as last week's 3rd most popular term, "NFL." Other top related searches included:

  • Pentagon
  • Bin Laden
  • Camp David
  • Nostradamus
  • Pearl Harbor
  • Black September
  • America Under Attack
  • Torres Gemelas (The Spanish name for the World Trade Center)

From midnight through noon Eastern time on September 11, only one of the top 20 most popular search terms on Lycos wasn't related to the disaster. That term was "Whitney Houston," who was a no show at the Michael Jackson concert on September 10. The full list, in order of popularity:

  1. CNN
  2. news
  3. World Trade Center
  4. CNN News
  6. MSNBC
  7. ABC News
  8. BBC
  9. breaking news
  10. world news
  11. Whitney Houston
  13. NBC
  14. live news
  15. NBC News
  16. BBC News
  17. Pentagon
  18. Fox News
  19. Associated Press
  20. ABC

At Google, some common queries reported, in no particular order, were:

  • cnn; CNN; cnn news;
  • news
  • world trade center
  • bbc; bbc news; BBC
  • reuters
  • msnbc; nbc
  • sky news
  • new york times
  • yahoo
  • pentagon
  • associated press
  • cbs
  • bin laden
  • american airlines
  • united airlines

At MSN Search, "world trade center" was reported to be by far the most common query related to the disasters. Also among top related queries were:

  • twin towers
  • world trade center new york
  • bin laden and ben laden
  • American Airlines
  • new york web cams
  • cnn;
  • foxnews
  • cbs news
  • pentagon

Search Tips

If you are seeking coverage of the terrorist attacks, you are best directed to use special news search engines. A link to a list of them is below, and they are listed roughly in order of most usefulness.

If you are seeking web sites related to the attacks, such as special survivor or assistance sites, general purpose search engines probably won't get you to them. This is because it takes time for them to update their listings, anywhere from days to weeks, depending on the search engine.

Instead, depend on news sites to get you to disaster web sites. They will all have articles and resource lists that are constantly being updated. And, to find news sites and news articles, use the news search engines.

For example, going to AltaVista's news site, a search for "blood donations" brings up 12 different articles about blood donation requests related to the bombings. In contrast, the same search against AltaVista's regular results -- or at Google -- brings up relevant sites about blood donations in general but not relevant to the current disaster.

For finding web sites -- such as the Red Cross or CNN -- using a "regular" search engine is just fine. Most will direct you to these, though you may find actually connecting to your destination site may be difficult due to the high traffic they are receiving.

Do keep in mind that how these sites are described -- and other sites -- may seem odd or completely ignorant of the disaster. This is again because it takes time for the search engines to update their information and because it also generally depends on the sites themselves to make updates.

Because of this, searches for things like "world trade center" will probably still reflect web sites that talk about tourism or perhaps the bombing from 1993, rather than today's attacks. That will change over the coming weeks, as the search engines get updated.

News Search Engines

Regular search engines are no good when you need breaking news. Instead, news search engines offer far more current information. The resources listed bring back headlines from a wide range of sources and are updated many times throughout the day.

Major Search Engines

These are major "general purpose" search engines, many of which were mentioned above. If you use them to seek news, look closely at their home pages for guidance. Don't just head straight to the search box. However, you should really use the news search engines above, for the best coverage.

Where to Find Current Disaster Information Web Search Guide, Sept. 11, 2001

Guide to many resources, especially disaster relief ones, related to the terrorist attacks.

Tragedy Results in Web News Gridlock, Sept. 11, 2001,,12_882061,00.html

Explains the difficulties in reaching many major news sites. Because of this, consider using a news search engine to find relevant articles at smaller news services. Many of them will have high quality coverage just like the major sites, due to wire service distribution -- and you'll be able to reach them.

Web acts as hub for info on attacks, Sept. 11, 2001

More about how the web is providing information to those seeking it about the attacks and disaster relief. Lots of links to chat areas and important web sites.

Ordinarily a resource for Internet and tech coverage, the staff of -- many based in New York -- have scrambled to provide coverage of the disasters.

Lycos 50

Has a special report on how people have been searching for terrorism coverage. If this no longer appears, look at archive area.