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March 6, 1996

Search Engines That Could . . .

It's a universal truth that if you ask 10 different Internet search engines [d.] the same question you'll get 10 different answers. This is fine if you've got the time -- and the attention span -- to search all 10.

Several developers are betting that most people don't, and two already offer solutions on the Web.

John E. Haag, an independent Web developer in Miami, has just introduced his new All4one Search Machine, which lets you input your search criteria just once, sends them out simultaneously to four popular search engines -- Yahoo, Lycos, Alta Vista and WebCrawler -- and then displays the results in four Netscape 2.0 frames.

The program lets you compare the search results among the four sites, then enlarge any frame to a full screen to scroll through the results more easily.

Taking a different -- and in some ways more useful -- approach to searching multiple engines simultaneously is MetaCrawler, which taps the resources of eight different search sites at one time. The big advantage to MetaCrawler is that it displays the results in a single, integrated list and lets you use sophisticated searching syntax, including Boolean [d.] expressions, to conduct your search.

With MetaCrawler you can search for one or more phrases, all words or any single word, and also lets you ask that it skip results that contain a particular word.

MetaCrawler also combines the confidence scores that each service gives to each reference and gives you the option of sorting the list a number of ways, including by geographic location or organization. And it eliminates duplicate entries. It even lets you indicate just how long you're willing to wait for the results.

MetaCrawler was developed last year by Erik Selberg, a graduate student in computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, and Oren Etzioni, an assistant professor in the department. MetaCrawler searches the most popular of the search sites: OpenText, Lycos, WebCrawler, InfoSeek, Excite, Inktomi, Alta Vista, Yahoo, and Galaxy.

The major limitation to the All4one search service is its very limited search syntax, though Haag says that in future versions searches will be more configurable. Right now, for example, you cannot exclude certain words in a search, as you can in most search engines. (When you're viewing All4one's results you can hone your search using the criteria permitted by that particular program. But then you're back to conducting searches one at a time.)

It takes awhile to get the hang of working in All4one. For starters, when you view the results of each search you're still in All4one, so paging back always returns you to the All4one home page, which can be a little frustrating.

Haag says he's is working on improvements as fast as he can, while at the same time hoping to find sponsors for the site. (All4one also displays the ads from the original search sites along with the results from those sites.) Soon you'll be able to select just which four search sites you want to search, or request that it just search two sites for faster results.

"My goal is to make it popular enough before somebody steals the idea," Haag said.

He may discover that he's already too late, because a number of others are already working on similar solutions. For example, SavvySearch, an engine developed by Daniel Dreilinger, a graduate student of computer science at Colorado State University, takes a tack similar to Metacrawler. SavvySearch sends your search request out to as many as four sites simultaneously, then either displays the lists one after another or, like Metacrawler, combines them into a single integrated list.

SavvySearch selects from a list of 18 search sites the four sites most relevant to your search request, then gives you the option of searching the next group of four, and so on.

Chances are, you'll find exactly what you're looking for using any one of these innovative services. For now, however, the most sophisticated merged-search engine remains Metacrawler.

Related Sites
Following are links to the external Web sites mentioned in this article. These sites are not part of The New York Times on the Web, and The Times has no control over their content or availability. When you have finished visiting any of these sites, you will be able to return to this page by clicking on your Web browser's "Back" button or icon until this page reappears.

  • The All4one Search Machine (source of the All4One logo)
  • MetaCrawler (source of the MetaCrawler logo)
  • SavvySearch (source of the SaavySearch logo)

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