SciTechBlog
May 5, 2010

Google shows off a new spring look

Posted: 01:48 PM ET

If you search for information on Google today, you may notice the results have a slightly new look.

The world's dominant search engine on Wednesday announced some changes that it refers to as its "spring metamorphosis."

"Today’s metamorphosis responds to the increasing richness of the web and the increasing power of search — revealing search tools on the left and updating the visual look and feel throughout," Google says in a blog post.

"While we are constantly rolling out small changes and updates, today’s changes showcase the latest evolutions in our search technology, making it easier than ever to find exactly what you're looking for."

Some changes are largely cosmetic: Navigation that was at the top of the page is now in a redesigned column on the left, for example. That column also lets searchers filter their results by category, potentially making it easier to shuffle from news stories to images and blog posts in the same search.

MercuryNews.com also says the Google logo changed slightly, and that the search box is now larger.

Here's some detailed analysis from the site Search Engine Land.

Google still dominates the search world, with 70 percent of the market share, according to a March report from Hitwise, which monitors internet traffic.

But it has come under threat lately from Facebook, which recently unveiled a plan to stretch into the rest of the internet, making it more social, and potentially taking away some of the power of Google's links; and from the growth of Bing, a rival search engine from Microsoft, which bills itself as more visual than Google. Bing has about 10 percent of the search market, Hitwise says.

Check out Google's changes and let us know what you think. Is Google just trying to get attention for some cosmetic shifts? Or are these changes significant?

Also note that even look-and-feel changes to search engines can be a big deal.

When Bing, for example, darkened the shade of its blue links, the company reportedly earned an extra $80 million in annual revenue.

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Filed under: Bing • Google • search engines


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June 15, 2009

'Hunch' knew what I would decide

Posted: 09:23 AM ET

When you first hear about Hunch, a new site that says it helps people make decisions, it's easy to be skeptical.

But, before you write the site off entirely, consider the fact that Hunch is really more about information than decisions. Hunch essentially is a site that makes searching the Internet fun.

In a recent interview with CNN.com, Caterina Fake, the site's founder, was careful to say that Hunch is not a search engine, it's "something new." That's true. But it does what Google, Bing and Wolfram Alpha all want to do: it learns something about you and then answers your questions, without sending you to a middle-man Web page that contains a giant list of hyperlinks that may or may not have what you're looking for.

Hunch isn't perfect, but, as Fake points out, it should get better over time, since its computers learn from all the people who use it.

I tested the site ahead of its public launch Monday, and it seemed to know me pretty well. I asked the site which Atlanta neighborhood I should live in, and Hunch's top response was my actual neighborhood. I asked Hunch what blogs I should read and the site spat back a couple of sites I do read and one, called Notcot, that I hadn't seen before, but do find to be neat.

It missed on some other topics, though. For instance, Hunch told me that, if I ever wanted to pick another line of work, I should be an electrical engineer. No chance there.

It's also important that Hunch is pretty fun to use. Using the site feels like taking a bunch of online quizzes, which already are popular on online social networks.

Check the site out and let me know what you think. Also listen to this short clip from my interview with Fake, who also is a co-founder of Flickr. It's my favorite part of our conversation. In it, she explains why she thinks the Internet is so powerful.

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Filed under: Caterina Fake • Flickr • Google • Hunch • search engines


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May 18, 2009

Wolfram Alpha search to launch today

Posted: 12:00 PM ET

Wolfram Alpha, the much-anticipated online calculator and search engine, is set to launch for the public today at 4 p.m. ET.

The site looks like a search engine but acts more like a giant calculator. It can crunch mathematical formulas, compare statistics and build charts based on online data that's curated by a team of scientists and mathematicians.

Some see Alpha as a major advancement in the search world, primarily because it does something Google doesn't: it creates new information, rather than just searching for what's already available online.

Check out this previous post for more information and for a CNN review of the site's pre-launch version.

And here's a recent CNN story about how this news fits into changes in the world of the search more generally. Several search engines are trying to supplement Google, rather than compete with the search king, which captures more than 60 percent of the market.

Of course, Google has some search news of its own, too, which appeared to be timed with news media buzz about Alpha.

Here's more from Alpha's creator, Stephen Wolfram. He writes in a blog that Alpha is a big advance for how well computers can think. But it's been a long and difficult process:

I wasn’t at all sure it was going to work. But I’m happy to say that with a mixture of many clever algorithms and heuristics, lots of linguistic discovery and linguistic curation, and what probably amount to some serious theoretical breakthroughs, we’re actually managing to make it work.

Pulling all of this together to create a true computational knowledge engine is a very difficult task.

I’d always thought, though, that eventually it should be possible. And a few years ago, I realized that I was finally in a position to try to do it.

When Alpha launches, take a look and let me know what you think. Which searches worked? Which didn't? Do you think the site is a useful supplement to major search engines like Google, Yahoo! and Ask? Is it being hyped?

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Filed under: search engines


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May 8, 2009

Wolfram|Alpha: a new way to find data online?

Posted: 12:21 PM ET

There's been lots of buzz in the tech community about a site called Wolfram|Alpha, which is set to launch in about a week - likely on May 18, according to a spokesman.

On first glance, Wolfram|Alpha looks like a search engine: it has a box where you type in a question or query terms. That's about where the similarities end, though, because, unlike Google or Ask, Wolfram|Alpha is kind of like an enormous calculator. It takes your question and crunches out an entirely new answer, even if the answer isn't something that's been posted on the Web before.

Confused? You're not alone. An example should help.

Say you're an investor and you want to see how two companies are faring against each other on the market. You could type in "IBM versus Apple" and Wolfram|Alpha will generate graphs and tables to compare the stocks over time. It also give you the Web-based sources used to generate the data, so you know where the numbers are coming from.

The site also solves equations and shows the steps it took to do so, which will be of interest to high school students and math majors. Not into number crunching? If you live near the coast, you could type in "tides in ____" and find charts of tidal and lunar information. You could also graph that against other cities, which would be cool if you're a surfer.

The site is also interesting for academic queries. Type in "Internet users in Africa" and you'll get the total number of Web users there - 51 million - as well as lists of the number of users by country plus graphs of this information. If you're in the fisheries business, or if you're an environmentalist, you could type in "fish produced in Italy versus France" to get an idea of how that sector is faring. The answer includes specifics, like how much of the fish crop was farmed versus what was captured. Such data could be used to argue policy points or to debate whether or not certain industries are sustainable.

Sound magical? Many people seem to think so. CNET and the New York Times have informative posts about the site and what it means for the way we generate and digest information in the Internet age.

But it's worth noting that all of the above searches were pulled out as examples in a press video released by the site's founder, Stephen Wolfram, who also was the creator of Mathematica. CNN obtained a test version of the site before its official release, and other searches that seem like they would work often didn't when I tried them.

I recently wrote a story about people who travel to dangerous parts of the world, so I searched for "countries with highest crime rates" and got no answer from the site. I tried a few variations and nothing seemed to work. "Country homicide rates" provided me to a link for the definition of a homicide, but that was about it.

CNET, a CNN partner site, experienced similar troubles when it tested Wolfram|Alpha. In a video, CNET says about two-thirds of its test searches didn't turn up useful information.

A writer for Harvardbusiness.org says Google is easier to use and Wikipedia is more powerful in the sense that it allows users to improve upon the site:

Think of Google as the Sears Roebuck of search — there are many "specialty" stores yet to be launched to meet different tastes and needs. But I don't think that Wolfram Alpha will be as widely used as Google is because it does not tap into a well-distributed, universal meme or structure as Google did; nor has the brilliant scientist figured out the architecture of participation — an easy to understand method for anyone with the desire and skill to help make Wolfram Alpha a better tool and knowledge base. If I want to help build Wolfram Alpha, I don't know how to begin; I do with Wikipedia.

In a recent blog post, Google also says it has added a public-data search function.

Still, it sounds like people are mostly excited about Wolfram|Alpha - in part because the project's aim is just so lofty. In a press-release video, Wolfram says the site aims to "compute whatever can be computed about the world."

Read more from the site's blog.

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Filed under: computers • Internet • Scientists • search engines


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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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