By Harry McCracken | Sunday, October 31, 2010 at 11:50 am
Blekko, a new search engine, opened up to the public today in beta form. Um, a new search engine as in something that intends to compete with Google, the Web’s most deeply-entrenched service? Yup. Unlike certain other past entrants, though, this one’s ambitions–to get at least a sliver of the search business, not to crush Google–aren’t wildly implausible. And even though it could stand more refinement–I found some of its results impressive but others downright disappointing–it brings a new and potentially powerful idea to the table.
That new idea is the slashtag, a keyword you append to the end of a search query to limit results to a predefined list of sites. Many of Blekko’s slashtags Slashtags help you search authoritative sites on a given topic, such as American history. Others are meant to skew results in a particular direction–for example, glenn beck /liberal, glenn beck /conservative, and glenn beck/humor get you radically different results.
Slashtags are a collaborative effort between Blekko and its users; the company wants real people to help figure out which slashtags are needed and what sites should be part of them. There are several hundred official slashtags–here’s the one for cars, for instance–and you can apply to become a Wikipedia-style editor for any of them. You can also use slashtags created by individual users, such as this one.
Oh, and you can also build your own slashtags, using an interface that makes it pretty simple to add sites. I created one for some of my favorite tech sites.
Don’t slashtags add an extra complication to searches? Yes, at least if you haven’t learned how to use them–so Blekko applies them automatically in the case of certain searches relating to cars, colleges, health, hotels, lyrics, money, and recipes. The idea is to steer the results towards high-quality, well-regarded sites and away from spam sites and “content farms” such as sites run by Demand Media and Yahoo’s Associated Content unit. (When I chatted with Blekko cofounders Rich Skrenta and Mike Markson about their engine, they said it’s in part a reaction to the increasing prominence of iffy sites in Google’s results.)
But the auto-filtered results didn’t always kick in when I expected them to: For instance, they didn’t when I searched for loans. In that case, Blekko’s top result was something called lowest-rate-loans.com. That site seems to be offline at the moment, but here’s a discussion thread which makes it sound like the type of site Blekko aims to help us avoid.
And while weeding out content from companies such as Demand Media and Associated Content gets rid of scads of mediocre-to-just-plain-bad material, it doesn’t guarantee that the results you do get will be great. Actually, in same cases, it eradicates useful stuff. When I searched for “fix a clogged sink,” for instance, Google’s top result was from Demand Media site eHow–but it okay. In fact, it was a better resource than Blekko’s first few results, which led off with a Yahoo Answers thread.
Except for slashtags, Blekko is a decidedly old-fashioned search engine. Unlike Google, it doesn’t try to weave together images, videos, real-time results, factoids, and other pieces of information into one list of results. Nor does it use your location or other cues. It just wants to give you a simple list of relevant results.
All in all I often found myself missing Google’s depth and subtlety. When I searched for world series on Google while game four was in progress, Google was smart enough to figure out that chances were pretty good that I was looking for the score, so it put it (as well as other related information) right at the top of the page:
(I don’t, however, understand why two of the top results for this search involve the St. Louis Cardinals–a team that isn’t playing in the Series this year as far as I can tell.)
Blekko’s results for this search just weren’t as good. When I searched for world series, I didn’t get any up-to-the-moment stories. Searching for world series /news made things worse–the first result was a story about the takeover of a Venezuelan steel company that happened to use the words “world” and “series.”
Finally, I searched for “world series” /news, and while that got me news stories about the World Series, the results still weren’t up to Google’s standards, in part because they included multiple instances of the same Associated Press story on different sites.
For all these reasons, I think Blekko in its current form is most useful and most interesting when you dive into slashtags instead of just using it the same way you’d use Google. The more I fooled around with them, the more neat things I found–for instance, there’s an /images slashtag and a /videos slashtag that aren’t mentioned on Blekko’s homepage but do what you’d guess they might do. And if the service gets lots of users who create and edit lots of slashtags, its results could be a lot more refined than the ones it’s delivering right now–and surely quite a bit different than the ones Google produces.
Bottom line: Blekko needs more work, but it’s worth keeping an eye on. If you give it a try, let us know what you think.