11.03.10

Testing the New Google Killer

Blekko, the latest Google rival, launched this week. The Daily Beast conducts a 100-search test to determine, once and for all, the best way to scour the Internet, and finds that the answer depends on what you’re searching for.

Blekko, the latest Google rival, launched this week. The Daily Beast conducts a 100-search test to determine, once and for all, the best way to scour the Internet, and finds that, surprisingly, Blekko holds its own in some areas—and that the answer depends on what you’re searching for.

In case you hadn’t heard, there’s a new search site called Blekko t hat wants to tempt you away from Google, Bing, and the other big boys. Though it’s tough for a newcomer to break into the search-engine game, Blekko is already earning buzz for its approach of having real people screen some of the sites it draws on for results.

So is Blekko worth turning to when you need to find answers? While there’s no shortage of tech bloggers and pundits offering up their impressions of Blekko, we wanted a more definitive answer. So The Daily Beast put Blekko to the test, pitting it against Google and Bing in a grueling 100-search face-off.

Our showdown produced some surprising results, with all three contestants getting in their licks at various points. The outcome also underscored that sites perform differently in different categories—a key fact to keep in mind when doing serious research online.

To conduct our test, we began with a list of 100 real-world searches. Our test queries spanned more than a dozen key everyday categories, from people and places to current events and even recipes and homework help. To keep things interesting, we took care to include some of the categories where Blekko says its human-driven approach excels over pure computer algorithms, including personal finance and health. Then we plugged every one of those 100 queries into Blekko, Google, and Bing, scoring the winner on each search based on the relevance, in our eyes, of the top results.

Blekko’s human-based differentiation has been tried plenty of times before, starting with Yahoo, which started as a directory of websites handpicked by its founders, Jerry Yang and David Filo. Then 1997 saw the arrival of a human-filtered directory called the Mining Company, which later morphed into About.com. Blekko’s twist is to have humans pre-select the most useful sites on key topics and then limit searches to those sites—and also to rope users into creating their own lists of relevant sites. Blekko uses what it calls “slashtags” in its searches to limit results to those human-endorsed sites. Typing “Moroccan lentil soup /recipes,” for instance, limits the search to a hand-picked list of sites, including Food Network and MarthaStewart.com. And for some topics—including personal finance, hotels, recipes and a few others—Blekko will automatically apply the slashtag for you; no need to type it.

So how did Blekko perform in our face-off? Here’s the final score from our 100 searches: Google won, earning the point on 57 of our test queries. Bing was the runner up, with 29 points. And trailing in third was Blekko with a score of 14.

The scores don’t tell the whole story. In some categories, we saw how the Blekko approach could make it competitive with the big names. In personal finance, for example, Blekko held its own, splitting the category evenly with Google and leaving Bing shut out. Feeding Blekko the query “Roth IRA,” for example, turned up a helpful overview at a respected blog as the top result—a much better showing than the top results at Google and Bing. In this case, Blekko had automatically limited the search to its list of designated personal-finance sites.

But overall, Blekko just couldn’t match Google for relevance. In some cases, the site failed to apply the right slashtag from the list of tags it says should “auto-fire.” What’s more, Blekko showed a propensity to deliver bizarrely off-topic results for some of our test queries.

One case of that was our homework-help query, “Why does the sunset’s location move?” Instead of directing us to science sites explaining the earth’s tilted axis the way Google and Bing did, Blekko supplied this as its top pick: a newspaper article headlined “Tanzania: Horned Heads and Clawfoot Baths on a Serengeti Safari.” And when we sought information on pricing at a popular health club by typing “How much does Equinox cost,” Blekko directed us to a page on windshield-wiper repair. Google, by contrast, supplied the right answer in its top result.

Also worth noting: While Bing may not have vanquished Google, it did manage to sparkle in a few key categories—including recipes, which Blekko has specifically targeted. From “steak Diane recipe” to “homemade bacon,” Bing not only found helpful recipes, it also presented them with eye-catching thumbnail photos. (Blekko gave us a recipe for bacon mayonnaise, not homemade bacon.)

Despite Blekko’s poor showing in our test, we saw two reasons not to write it off. One is to recognize that the approach may have appeal for power users. As we saw in some of our results, Blekko is capable of outsearching Google—if you invest the time needed to understand and use its slashtag system, put the effort into customizing your own lists for important searches and scout out authoritative slashtags created by others. For instance, someone doing a lot of medical research could create a slashtag that limits results to a few dozen reputable sites and rely on that for most searching—moving to Google only when it’s desirable to cast a wider net.

If you want a better understanding of how this works, you can take my own slashtag for a test drive. I’ve created my own list of key sites covering social media to speed my searches on that topic, and you can use it too. Just append “/tweber/socialmedia” to your search terms when using Blekko. (And if you have suggestions on improving my list, let me know via Twitter.)

Blekko’s twist is to have humans pre-select the most useful sites on key topics and then limit searches to those sites.

That capability is the second reason to keep an eye on Blekko. Because slashtags can be shared, the site has the potential to get some viral traction and boost its awareness among users. If recognized experts create their own slashtags and promote them to their social networks—like sharing a custom Pandora channel—Blekko could make it onto the radar screens of many users it might not reach otherwise. Imagine, for instance, if a popular sports blogger were to set up slashtags to aid searches on baseball stats and player profiles.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to envision Blekko going head to head with Google—though it’s less difficult to picture Google or Bing buying Blekko and applying the approach to their own results.

Thomas E. Weber covers technology for The Daily Beast. He is a former bureau chief and columnist at The Wall Street Journal and was editor of the award-winning SmartMoney.com. Follow him on Twitter.