|Unlike Search Engines, Answers.Com Responds With Data, Not Links [NYT] January 27, 2005|
By WALTER S. MOSSBERG
For all of their popularity and importance, search services like Google have a significant limitation: They don't answer questions or provide information directly. If you want to know the biography of a historical figure, the meaning of a word or the size of a city, Google and its competitors usually won't simply tell you. Instead, they will generate a list of Web sites where the answers might -- or might not -- be found.
If you are lucky, you may be able to quickly find an answer by skimming the summary text of the Web pages listed in the results. Google also places a little-known link called "Definition" in tiny type at the top right of many results pages.
Several of the other major search sites have taken more, but still limited, steps toward providing answers. Microsoft's new MSN Search provides direct answers to some search queries, like the populations of cities, at the top of the list of Web links. Ask Jeeves does something similar on certain queries. Amazon's A9 search service has a button called "reference" that provides some direct answers.
But now there is an entire search service devoted to providing direct answers to search queries. It is called Answers.com, and it is available at www.answers.com. Using a variety of reference sources, such as dictionaries and encyclopedias, it generates a thoughtfully organized page of relevant information about your search query without requiring you to click on any further Web links.
Answers.com comes from GuruNet, an Israeli company that developed a little-known, but slick, reference utility called GuruNet a few years back. With GuruNet, when you held down the Alt key and clicked on any word on any screen on your computer, the program produced a tabbed window with definitions, encyclopedia articles, and other information related to the word. GuruNet also powers the reference section of the A9 search service.
Now, with Answers.com, the company has expanded its reference sources, added many more topics, and morphed GuruNet into a full-blown search service you can call up from any major Web browser. You can still get the old GuruNet functionality, which works without requiring you to start in a Web browser.
Here is an example of how Answers.com differs from normal search services. Suppose you want information on the city of Seattle. In Google, if you type in "Seattle," you get a long list of Web links, starting with the city's official Web site. At the top are links to maps of Seattle, and to news about Seattle.
Yahoo and MSN are worse, putting real-estate ads on top of their Web results. Ask Jeeves gives you a map and some local links, followed by a zillion ads. But other than the Ask Jeeves map, none gives you direct information. You must click on further links to learn anything.
The same search in Answers.com is radically different. You see a well-formatted page that includes a definition from the American Heritage dictionary. That is followed by a longer, but still compact, article on Seattle from the Columbia Encyclopedia. And that is followed by sections on current weather, and the local time. Then, there is a very long article on Seattle, with detailed maps, from the public, open-source Wikipedia encyclopedia.
To avoid a lot of scrolling, Answers.com provides a box at the upper left that allows you to quickly jump to each portion of the results page -- Dictionary, Encyclopedia, etc. You can also click once to get a Google Web search on Seattle. It also offers links to relevant blogs on a topic, to image searches and other resources.
Similarly, if you search for Tom Brady, the Super Bowl-winning quarterback of my beloved New England Patriots, Answers.com gives you a brief biography from a service called Who2, followed by a longer Wikipedia article. Google, Yahoo and MSN give you pages of links, topped by ads. Ask Jeeves does a little better, but not as well as Answers.com. It provides the first few sentences of a biography, before several ads.
Answers.com is free, and it does have ads. But they are listed down the right side of its results pages, never atop the actual answers.
You can also download optional free software from Answers.com that works like the old GuruNet program, allowing you to get answers by Alt-clicking on any word on any screen. In Windows, this download also includes a toolbar for Internet Explorer and a search box that's always available in the lower-right corner of your screen. If you use the Firefox browser, you can download an optional Answers.com plug-in that works with the browser's built-in search box.
On the Mac, the optional GuruNet software enables you to select any word on any screen, highlight it and press some keys to get results.
There are some downsides to Answers.com. It has answers for only about a million available topics so far. And it relies heavily on Wikipedia, which has been criticized because it isn't written or edited by experts. But unlike some recognized sources like the online Encyclopedia Britannica, Answers.com is free and instantly searches multiple reference works from multiple publishers.
Answers.com is also a start toward a new search paradigm where the object is to provide real instant information, not just links to pages where that information may, or may not, be found. I urge you to try it.
Write to Walter S. Mossberg at firstname.lastname@example.org