By Harry McCracken | Monday, July 28, 2008 at 12:23 am
A search engine called Cuil launched tonight. It touts itself as the world’s largest search engine, with more than 121 billion pages indexed–three times as many as Google, it says. Its “About Cuil” page sniffs at “superficial popularity metrics”–for which read Google’s PageRank–and says that it has a better approach to figuring out a page’s content and relevance. The site’s management includes multiple veterans of Google, plus Louis Monier, who was instrumental at AltaVista, the first important search engine. In short, both its claims and its staff set the bar high. And its claims, in particular, beg you to compare it with Google.
After spending a bit of time playing with Cuil, though, I’m more puzzled than impressed by the results. It would appear that the site is suffering some technical glitches tonight: In some cases, it’s told me it found zero results for a search, then has returned lots of them when I tried again. In fact, that’s happened often enough that I’d be cautious about judging any results that Cuil provides tonight:
I’ve done a bunch of other searches in hopes of finding an instance in which Cuil clearly beats Google. No luck so far. When I search for George Washington, the first result relates to George Washington University, not the Father of the Nation. The second result is Wikipedia’s entry on the great man, but the text excerpt is a snippet from the bibliography at the end of the article, so that’s not clear. The third result is a page about the George Washington Carver museum in Austin, Texas. I can’t imagine anyone arguing that that outdoes Google’s results. In fact, placing a result relating to George Washington Carver so high is evidence that Cuil’s understanding of my search was shaky; it’s unlikely that anyone looking for information on George Washinton Carver would fail to include the “Carver” in the search.
When I tried to pull up info on a local Thai resaurant with the search “osha restaurant san francisco,” all the results on Cuil’s first page were from Citysearch, and they included dupes. Google gave me the restaurant’s official site, the addresses of all its locations, reviews from Yelp, and more–including a link to Citysearch.
Cuil’s first result for “america” is AOL; its first result for “capitol” is for the Nebraska state capitol; its first result for “hamburger” is a site selling a book of restaurant reviews for airplane pilots.
Oh, and its first result for “iphone” is for a phone from…Cisco. (McCracken’s Fifth Law of Search Relevance states that zero percent of people who search for “iphone” are seeking information on Cisco VoIP products.)
Other Cuil results are also odd: When I search for “cuil search engine,” I get one result–which isn’t about Cuil. It’s true that the site was formally known as Cuill, with two Ls at the end. But when I do the same search on Google, I get plenty of relevant results.
There’s some evidence that Cuil’s index, whatever its size, isn’t super-current. When I searched for “dark knight,” I rightly got a link to the official site as my first result. But Cuil’s text snipped for it referred to it as an upcoming film, and most of the other links on the page were similarly stale. Google’s results were much more current.
Cuil displays its results in a manner which is decidedly un-Google-esque: You get a gridlike page with ten or eleven results laid out in rows and columns. The results give you a larger-than-usual excerpt from the pages they link to, but I’d love to know Cuil’s thinking behind using the grid rather than a traditional top-to-bottom list: For me, at least, the Cuil approach is dramatically harder to scan, since I can’t just swoop my eyes down the page.
The search engine does have some features designed to help searchers. As you type, it begins to list searches that include the characters you’ve entered: For instance, when I typed “honda c” it presented me with this
You also get tabs that provide access to related searches:
And an “Explore by Category” box that provides links to further related results:
None of this is strikingly new, though. Here’s Yahoo doing something quite similar, for instance:
Then there’s Cuil’s claim of having the Web’s largest index. Over at TechCrunch, Michael Arrington did some searches for which Google returned more results than Cuil did. But judging a search engine by the size of its index is a basically iffy proposition. The search engine with the biggest index may have done a poorer job of eliminating dupes like the one I found in my Thai restaurant search above. And getting millions of results for a search doesn’t help you a bit when even the most dedicated of searchers don’t look at more than the first few pages of results. (Millions more pages in the index is meaningful only if some of those extra pages are so relevant that they show up near the top of some results; otherwise, they’re just dross.) Which helps explain why when Google announced last week that its engine knows of a trillion URLs on the Web, the company also said that many of them are irrelevant and therefore not in the index.
None of this is to suggest that Cuil might not turn out to be something good. I cheerfully admit that when I first used Google–back when it was an obscure upstart with a lot of buzz, not unlike Cuil–I was distinctly unimpressed and went back to whatever search engine I favored at the time. (AltaVista? Hotbot? I forget.) It simply took awhile before Google became Google.
In fact, given the pedigree of the folks behind Cuil and its underwhelming performance in most of the searches I tried, I think the technology more or less must be better than the experience I got tonight. So I’ll give Cuil another try soon. For now, though, I’m surprised that this is one new site that doesn’t have a little “Beta” label next to its logo. Actually, what I experienced tonight felt like a shaky alpha, even if there’s powerful technology lurking inside there somewhere…
(Update: I just tried Cuil again and got a “We’ll Be Back Soon” page saying that Cuil usage is outstripping capacity.)