Google, Bing and Yahoo. Somebody who's never seen a computer might think that's the cast of a 1930s knockabout comedy. But we know them as the three big players in the search engine marketplace.
It takes a brave company to set up in business against them, but that's what several intriguing startups are doing. The nature of the computing industry is one of giants regularly toppling. Remember Wang, DEC or even Sun? So why not Google, Microsoft or Yahoo?
Here are three new search engines worth examining, either to use as tools in your workflow or to start considering as targets for search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques for your business.
Just do everybody a favour and never mention Cuil.
Blekko brings a couple of new tricks to the search party but the main one is the concept of slashtags. These are qualifying words that are added to search phrases after a slash (/) to refine the query.
For example, if I wanted to search for articles about Google Docs sorted by date, I'd type Google Docs /date. If I wanted to search for pages discussing Google Docs in the context of handheld computers like mobile phones, I could type Google Docs /gadgets.
Lots of slashtags are already defined but users can make their own, a process involving associating sites with the slashtag so Blekko can get a flavor of the type of content required.
A surprising number of seemingly obvious slashtags have not yet been defined, I tried to search for mentions of myself relating to some Kindle eBooks I've recently written, for example, but there isn't yet a /kindle slashtag.
Blekko's search results aren't too great. Courtesy of a little vanity searching using my own name (surely the standard method of testing a search engine), adding the /date slashtag, revealed that Blekko didn't recognize "Keir Thomas" as a individual's name, and returned separate results for "Keir" and for "Thomas." Surely being able to spot names is the kind of thing they teach in Search Engine 101 class?
Blekko's other big trick is that users can mark results as spam and have them instantly removed from the list, after which they'll never appear again in search results for that user.
Additionally, and usefully for businesses, anybody at all can also see SEO data for a site by clicking the SEO link beneath each search results. Unfortunately, this too was less than perfect. When viewing the data for a site I run, Blekko claimed that the site is "co-hosted with" several other sites I'd never heard of. This is no doubt based on the fact they have in the past shared the site's IP address courtesy of virtual hosting by my ISP. However, it's plain misleading.
Blekko is interesting but the beta tag under its logo does actually mean something this time: Blekko really is a prerelease-quality search engine. However, it can only get better as time goes on. Some of its tools are actually pretty neat and are things Google can't easily emulate.
Built on the theory that two (or more) heads are better than one, Qyo attempts to bring collaborative search to the masses. This is a buzz phrase within the search engine world at the moment, especially for organisations like Google and Facebook that want to expand their offerings in new directions. It's rumoured Google will soon be launching its Circles service, for example, that could feature social search.
Upon registering with Qyo, which you must do before you're allowed to search, you're invited to connect to your Facebook account to get friends and associates involved, too. In fact, without friends, Qyo is a fairly sparse experience.
Once you've associated with another person, all your searches via Qyo are visible to them (and theirs to you), unless you specifically choose to search privately. Search queries appear as a message list on the right hand side of the screen. You can comment on other peoples' searches, perhaps telling them where they went wrong or giving them clues, but that's about it. You can't refine their search, expand it or alter it in any way. This feels limiting.
A more powerful feature can be found in the subnet feature that lets you subscribe to groups and pass your search out to them (and their searches to you, of course). This also lets you make new contacts when somebody responds, for example.
It's not hard to imagine how Qyo's designers anticipate the site working: Whenever you arrive at the site to search you'll see all your friends' searches too. You can comment on them or just chat generally. Search suddenly becomes social.
However, I'm not sure any of us want to share our searches in this way. Just like everybody thinks they have a sense of humour, everybody thinks they're the best Googler in the world. Asking for help searching can be a humiliating experience.
Qyo is tagged with a beta icon but in reality it's more of an alpha release. The website didn't even display properly in my Google Chrome browser, with some text overlapping graphical items. I'm left feeling that, while the concept is neat, it could be done a whole lot better, with more creativity, intelligence and finesse.
Above all, it's not searches that users need to share, but results. This has already been successfully done with sites like Delicious.com, which tags sites according to shared topics, but there's significant room for expansion in new directions.
Unlike the other search engines mentioned here, DuckDuckGo appears to be just another search engine in the same mould as Google. However, it respects privacy and doesn't record search results or track you (unlike Google, et al).
It also boasts intelligence that lets it try and figure out what you're searching for, and presenting it in a red box at the top of the search results, drawing information from sites like Wikipedia and Wolfram Alpha in order do so.
For example, searching for "PC World magazine" displays a box with a snippet of info from Wikipedia, plus links to various websites, underneath which is listed the usual set of results you might see for the search term.
DuckDuckGo also claims to ban spam sites, the sites that seem to show useful results in search listings but are simply full of ads.
There's a handful of other interesting features, such as bang searches, where a site name preceded with an exclamation mark will use the search feature of the specific site. For example, !wikipedia barack obama will use Wikipedia's own search feature to find pages related to Barack Obama. There's a long list of bangs you can use and some are intelligent. Using !java, for example, will search the portion of Oracle's site dedicated to Java documentation.
DuckDuckGo is the most polished of the search engines mentioned here but it doesn't really offer much to switch users away from Google. However, if you really don't like Google, Bing or Yahoo, then it's perhaps the next best option.