Search engine companies Ask.com and Hakia Inc. this week overhauled their respective search technologies, tapping into the semantic Web to provide search results that better reflect the intent behind the query.
Early reviewers had mixed opinions about the changes, which were announced separately on Monday by both of the search engine firms. The changes to both engines aim to provide users with more credible results and thus gain a stronger foothold in a search market dominated by Google.
For its part, Ask.com said its updated engine provides more relevant results more quickly. The new Ask.com searches deeper in the highest-volume categories like jobs and entertainment, and can deliver more direct answers on the results page, the company said.
In addition, a simplified user interface in the new version lets users rank and integrate a broad array of content, including breaking news, blogs, images, video and music, Ask.com added.
David Chartier, a blogger with Ars Technica, said the new version marks a return to the Ask.com’s semantic roots, and makes it a one-stop shop for search results and the information contained in the results.
Testing queries like “What causes headaches?” and “What is a good credit score?” revealed strong results, Chartier added, especially compared to the results of the same queries in Yahoo and Google.
“While an old-school list of blue links and black text is still provided for many queries, a combination of Ask.com’s semantic technologies and new partnerships with various sites will provide things like in-line photos, weather listings, video thumbnails, and more,” he noted.
Chartier pointed out that a search for “What NFL games are on TV this Sunday” leaned on semantic technology to come up with the TV listings.
“Our testing gives credence to Ask.com’s claim that it has the best semantic search engine for the general Web so far,” Chartier noted. “After all, it should; natural-language query was the founding principle of the company over a decade ago. With today’s update, though, Ask.com – the fourth- or fifth-largest search engine (depending on whom you ask) – has taken a strong step toward finding the deeper meaning of search and expanding its general consumer audience.”
Stan Schroeder, a blogger at Mashable, noted that while the overhauled Ask.com engine produced good results, users likely will soon find out that asking questions in a search will not always work.
“So you’re tempted to switch back to your ‘regular’ way of searching: stringing relevant keywords in hope to find a related Web page,” he added. “Ask.com has an answer to that, too; a new option on the front page called Q&A returns results solely in the form of questions and answers related to your search, taken from sites such as Yahoo Answers or Wiki Answers.”
Still, he noted that the new approach isn’t likely to top Google’s capabilities. “It’s nearly impossible due to the fact that everyone who’s SEO-aware builds their Web pages for Google,” Schroeder added. “The question for Ask.com is: should they try to be the general purpose search engine, or should they find a smaller, more convenient niche? Their refocus on giving direct answers, like they’ve done with this latest update, could give us (no pun intended) the answer to that question.”
Hakia, whose roots are also in semantic search, said that its redesigned site offers dedicated search results from what it calls Credible Sites – sites vetted by librarians and other professionals. This is an expansion of Hakia’s move in April to show the credibility of information surfaced in health-related queries.
The new Hakia version also includes a new focused search feature, where the first tab provides a three-column overview of the Web results, which include results from Hakia Credible sites, images and news, the company said. To further organize search results, Hakia now provides a link to a feature called “galleries,” which organizes search results into relevant categories. For example, a search on “Madonna” will categorize results in areas like images, headlines, blogs, fan sites, lyrics and controversies.
Frederic Lardinois, a blogger at Read Write Web, noted that Hakia uses a very strict definition for what makes a site credible.
“To be included in the index, a site should have gone through a peer review process, not have any commercial bias, and the information should be current,” he added. “The fact that Hakia insists on only adding peer reviewed sites should greatly enhances the signal-to-noise ratio of the search results.”
Lardinois went on to note that Hakia is very adept at structuring its regular search results by categories.
“Whenever we tried to ask more general questions (‘What is a blog?’), however, Hakia’s results were often underwhelming and uneven,” he added. “Sometimes we got results that were spot-on, while at other times, the results barely had anything to do with our query.”
Moreover, Erick Schonfeld, a blogger at TechCrunch, questioned whether this approach to highlighting credibility might be vulnerable to spammers.
“While this white-list approach could improve the quality of results, it also seems way too easy to game,” he added. “Any spammer can try to get their site on the truthful and authoritative list. And they will.”