Good Design

There’s an interesting little tidbit over on Googleblogscoped regarding a flaw in Google’s home page navigation. I’ve noticed this myself a number of times and it always annoys me. Simply summary, if you enter a term and hit “Images”, it doesn’t do a search. You have to first search the general database for the term and them hit images. I wonder if Google gets a little extra income from this flaw when it displays ads on the first page of search results?

Simple solution – add Google images and other image search engines to your search bar using Open Search.

Free Source Search Indexer Library

Hat tip to my friend Dru for pointing me to Lucene, and Lucene.NET – a free, fast search indexer written in .NET.

Features:

  • Very good performance
  • Ranked search results
  • Search query highlighting in results
  • Searches structured and unstructured data
  • Metadata searching (query by date, search custom fields…)
  • Index size approximately 30% of the indexed text
  • Can store also full indexed documents
  • Pure managed .NET in a single assembly
  • Localizable (support for Brazilian, Czech, Chinese, Dutch, English, French, German, Japanese, Korean and Russian included in DotLucene National Language Support Pack)
  • Extensible (source code included)
  • Lucene.Net is a port of Jakarta Lucene to .NET (C#) maintained by George Aroush

This thing is fast too! Nice. Ive been looking for a nice search indexer for Daisy and some other stuff I’m experimenting around with on the server side, this looks like an excellent solution so far. It’s licensed under the Apache Software License 2.0. I must be a little behind the times on this, considering I’m finding that Lucene implementations are the search technology behind web projects like Technorati, and desktop apps like Lookout (Now MS Desktop Search) Beagle, and RSS Bandit.

On a side note, I really love it when I find a free source library on the net that really works for what I’m doing. I think developers who work on these projects represent the truest form of altruism, unlike the more perverse forms of Open Source which adopt licenses like the GNU GPL. I’ve developed one free source library myself, and enjoyed the positive vibes you get from working on these projects.

Checking Out Google Checkout

The hype is intense as usual over a new Google feature – Google Checkout. Overall I’m impressed, but also a little bummed, I was hoping for a system that makes the process of selling products simpler. As a part-time shareware developer I’ve stayed away form sites like PayPal for two reasons – One, they require the user to create a PayPal account to make a purchase, and two, the job of integrating a site with PayPal is complex, especially if the resulting purchase requires an email response with a license key. This nixed PayPal for me and Google Checkout as well for this use case.

Aside from this niche case however, Checkout does have some interesting possibilities. First though I’d be interested in knowing how many people actually purchase a product after clicking on an ad in a search engine response. Although the Google Blog seems to claim this is common, personally I’ve never done this myself. People tend to be comparison shoppers, so finding a product by visiting a search engine and clicking on an ad seems a bit of a stretch. I think the big win for a service like Checkout comes from vendors who have products for sale that get indexed in comparative sites like NexTag. If these sites support Checkout this makes it simple for a user to purchase products from these sites. But in this case, is Checkout really a PayPal killer? Given the choice of clicking on a PayPal button and a Google Checkout button when purchasing, I’m at a loss as to why I would sign up for a new service if I already have an account at PayPal. So Google stands to increase it’s Checkout accounts only if the user is signing up for the first time with some sort of payment system. In this case, the better margins are what PayPal should be worried about, since Google has undercut PayPal with a 2.0% vendor surcharge on purchases compared to PayPal’s 2.9%. If PayPal has any brains at all they’ll drop their rate tomorrow, possibly even lower to say 1.9% to compete. After all vendors faced with the task positioning payment buttons on their sites are going to give precedence to the payment service that makes them more money.

The other chance Checkout has is in the case where the vendor only supports Checkout and not PayPal. Although I think the number of vendors doing this voluntarily will be slim, Google can easily write checks to help tip the scales. A good example would be Buy.com, which does not support PayPal. In this case the consumer will choose Buy if they already have an account with that site. If not, it’s a choice between Google and Buy.com. I’m curious if the perception will be that going with Google means your sharing your personal data with two companies? Regardless, I think there will be uptake for Checkout in this case. Personally I would probably go with Google, not knowing much about Buy.com.

Others have also commented that this is an Amazon killer. In general I think this is mostly hype, with no real substance. Sites like Amazon are a first destination for shoppers looking for a particular product because Amazon has already built up consumer confidence in it’s brand. For example when I buy a book, CD, mp3 player, xbox 360, or even my favorite kind of socks, I’m not going to go to a search engine, search for the brand, and click on an ad. I’m going to go directly to amazon.com. In these cases comparison shopping isn’t needed, so I just go directly to the site I trust. Even if I do find a product via a search engine, odds are there will be an Amazon link on the page. With Amazon’s free shipping discounts for mixed orders, I’d still go with Amazon over a smaller vendor.

Beyond the hype, I think Checkout will have reasonable growth. If eBay knows anything about business 101, they’ll know that getting undercut on vendor surcharges needs to be dealt with quickly. Deal with that, and the only thing Google has going for it is a nice button and their name. In this case it comes down to consumers choosing which brand they trust more – PayPal, or Google. Who wins that battle is anybody’s guess, contrary to everything you’ve read today. 🙂 In time though I imagine consumers may adopt both systems. Then it comes down to who can cut the best deals, and provide the best incentives to sellers. eBay has been king in this business forever, so they haven’t been forced to compete at all. Look for big changes overall in the PayPal system going forward from everything to customer service to seller services to technology. One of the hallmarks of Google is they force positive change, in this case sellers stand to benefit.

Overall, I have to say that this product, without a doubt, is the smartest thing Google has done since Search. Eliminate every crappy product they’ve produced in between except maybe GMail and Maps (good PR plays but lacking in any substantial business model) and you have what appears to be a very smart company. I’m just surprised it took so long.

Best Shootout Ever?

Steve Mays takes a poll on the best end of movie shootout ever. I threw in my pick, Heat, circa 1995 with DeNiro, Pacino and Kilmer. Plus, I found a clip of part of the ending on YouTube. That scene still brings me to the edge of my seat. The movie was written and directed by Michael Mann.

Oddly enough I didn’t find all this information through Google, I found it through MSN. Google has a really annoying ‘reviews’ results set for anything of the form “movie: xyz” or “movie xyz”. Published reviews really should not be the default, they should be an option. (That’s my personal opinion anyway.) MSN and Yahoo correctly gave me the results I was looking for, plus the added bonus of the YouTube clip. Try it yourself –

MSN
Google
Yahoo

Fragmentation of Search

Fred Wilson makes an interesting point today that totally struck home with me. Ever since I switched to IE 7, with it’s FireFox / Safari / Opera like built in search entry, I’ve stopped using just one search engine for things. The search landscape is definitively going to change once IE 7 goes main stream, especially since IE 7 also supports the Open Search system for easily adding new search providers.

I used to go to Google for everything I searched for, but not anymore. I use MSN Search now for general internet searching, I like the search results and feel it’s on par with Google’s. I used to use Google’s quick link to Answers.com definitions, but now I just hit Answers.com directly. I also use Answers as a source for quick spell checking which used to be handled by either Google or MSN’s suggest feature. Sports scores – direct to ESPN or Fox Sports. You’ll find me on Technorati when I’m looking for current events I’m sure the blogsphere will be covering, and I go directly to Wikipedia for reference material on everything from desktop widget engines to historical information on artists like Spalding Gray. Why would I ever search MSN or Google for Spalding Gray album history information when I know Wikipedia will provide it? It just doesn’t make any sense anymore to search the internet when there are specialized information providers that I know have what I’m looking for without any hassle. Basically one simple little feature in IE7 is allowing me to cut out the middle man – Google and MSN.

I wonder how this is going to effect the usage of sites like Google, MSN and Yahoo? I wonder if they are concerned about it? I think they probably should be, but I’m not picking up specialized Open Search subscriptions from the big search engines. I’d think they would be trying to fill my search drop down with links to services like blog search, definitions, etc.. But they aren’t.

Windows Live Search

Here’s a interesting idea in search, instead of forcing the user to navigate through page after page of results, just let them scroll through them. Windows Live Search releases it’s new interface today, pretty darn slick. If your in IE 7 it’ll pick up Live Search and you can add it as a search provider. I’ll be testing this new search over the next few weeks. Also, apparently there’s supposed to be an update in the near future improving relevancy too. MSN Search was already pretty damn good, I wonder how much better it will get?

Here’s a fun search :

OSX Exploits

and here’s the same search, except the page will automatically pan down to my recent blog post:

OSX Exploits

Neat. (The url in the address bar will automatically update as you scroll) I also noticed the ads on the right dynamically update based on the results your currently viewing. You can also tighten up the results, or expand them using the little detail selector in the upper right.

Also, Inside Microsoft has the lowdown on the new Live Image Search. I’m just trying it out now, wow. I spend a lot of time searching for images for blog posts and coding. This is hands down, the best image search on the net.

Search Roundup

Ask.com just came out with a new interface, and heck, it’s clean. The result are good too. MSN Search also recently cleaned up their interface a bit, removing the heavy blue graphic from the home page that slowed load times. I’m just going to pick a technical subject, and lets see how well they all do. I was reading the Microsoft announcement today about the various flavors of Vista, and wanted more information on their new UNIX subsystem which allows UNIX apps to run on Vista. Here we go-

Ask.com – UNIX Subsystem Vista
Google.com – UNIX Subsystem Vista
Search.Msn.com – UNIX Subsystem Vista
Search.Yahoo.com – UNIX Subsystem Vista
A9.com – UNIX Subsystem Vista
Icerocket.com – UNIX Subsystem Vista

Results

Open them all up in tabs and take a look. Msn, Google and A9 are identical. Ask.com gets a gold star for having more real-time information, they have the Forbes article (dated 02.27.06, 12:02 AM ET ) on the Microsoft Vista press announcement in their first page. None of the other engines have this at this point (which may change by the time you do the search.) Yahoo is, well, bottom of the pack, Their relevancy just isn’t up there with the rest.

Features

Msn, Yahoo! A9, Google and Icerocket all have a cache of the pages in the results, Ask.com does not. A cache can be really useful, that’s something Ask needs to add. Google’s the only one with a Similar Pages search link baked into the results. Not sure how useful that is. Icerocket has QuickView, which I think I could use occasionally for scanning, although tabbed browsing sort of kills the usefulness of this.

Speed

Google is stil the fastest search provider out there, for this they get a gold star. Yahoo! was the slowest, by far, it took forever for their results to load. Msn was right behind Google, they sputter a little sometimes but for the most part their pages load just as fast as Google’s.

User Interface

I’d say, in terms of ease of readability, I’d give A9 top marks. (But this is totally open to individual interpretation, tell me what you think.) Their titles are easy to spot and the relevant keywords are well highlighted within the summary text. Their page is too busy though, loaded up with all kinds of check boxes, borders, options and panels.

Google’s interface is feeling a little cluttered. Their text is too bunched up, and their links are folded over on two lines in most cases and aren’t clipped short enough. I have to say, Google is starting to look less clean than some of thier competitors to me, a visual style they pioneered. I’m surprised they haven’t continued to update their results page format over the years. It’s getting dated.

Msn has a different problem, they needs to make their results easier to scan like A9. The text on Msn’s results tends to blend together too much, it’s hard to pick out individual results while scanning the page. Bold titles and shrinking the summary text one notch would probably do it. (Yes I just criticized Msn Search, imagine that.)

Icerocket is too cluttered as well. You can turn off the page thumbnail images if you want (a totally worthless feature IMHO) but it’s still too cluttered. It does load pretty quick however.

As far as cleanliness goes, I think Ask.com gets top marks. Simple, no nonsense, easy to read, and no clutter.

Summary

I think I’m going to throw an Ask link up and give them a whirl for a week or two, I’m impressed so far. If your browser supports Open Search, you can add ask.com to your search providers here. Overall, unless your using Yahoo! as your search engine (which you probably shouldn’t be, it’s bottom of the heap on all counts), there’s absolutely nothing compelling in these results that would warrent switching from your current choosen search provider. Extra search engine features aside, search itself, is pretty much a flatland. With a level playing field, it makes it very easy for users to switch if they happen to find something they like about the other search engines. Whether it’s Msn’s information applets, or Icerocket’s QuickView option, or Ask’s clean interface, there’s nothing compelling about the results of the search engine. Which I would think has to scare the heck out of Google, if they’re even paying attention at this point.

MSN Search Likes Me

On a recent search for some MSRSS info, I came across my own blog post in the search results. MSN Search was more up to date –

MSN Search: Cached page 2/22/2006
Google: as retrieved on Feb 3, 2006 11:38:20 GMT.

The reason for the discrepancy is one of two things – either MSN sucks and Google knows my blog content is worthless, or MSN is more real-time on the long tail than Google. I’d bet the latter.

Google’s P/E Getting Inline

As the advertising company’s stock continues to slump, (did i just say advertising company? I meant search company) I noticed their P/E is now 68 according to Yahoo! Financial. Still high, but not ‘lofty’. The forward P/E is at 28, but that’s based on estimates, which Google missed on last quarter. I wonder if it will drop further? Apparently some report came out this weekend claiming they could loose market share this year due to competition by Yahoo! and Microsoft. I don’t get that, Microsoft and Yahoo! are so far behind in the ad space right now, their catch up will take years, not months.

UPDATE – The report was from Barron’s, and they claim Google’s current P/E is 41 –

The weekly uses a back-of-the-envelope calculation to show how a 20 percent revenue miss could cascade into a 30 percent profit shortfall. Such a drop could then lead to a decline in the price-to-earnings multiple of the stock to 30 times earnings from the present P/E ratio of 41, it said.