Of Serendipity and Search Engines

First published in Mediapost’s Search Insider on Dec 13, 2004

I love the word serendipity. It’s like an entire poem in one word. Just saying it out loud makes you feel… well… serendipitous.

So, this week, with the holidays approaching, I was in a serendipitous mood and started noodling (another favorite word) with my Google toolbar. “Hmm” I said to myself, “I wonder how Google ranks on Google for the words “search engine.” Google’s whole promise is to bring the best to the top, right? So which search engine is Google giving its all-powerful vote of confidence?

Well, no one, as it turns out. SearchEngineWatch.com, Jupiter’s portal for search marketing and optimization, grabs the coveted top spot. So, surely, Google must be second. Nope, that would be Lycos. Now, as far as I can remember, Lycos is dying a long and lingering death, but according to Google, they’re No. 1. Well, actually No. 2, behind the site that isn’t a search engine.

In fact, Google ranks itself fifth, behind Dogpile and AltaVista. Can it be? Does Google have a secret inferiority complex? Is the cockiness of every Google employee I’ve ever met just a front for a shuddering mass of vulnerability? I dig further.

What if I refine my search? Let’s try “smartest search engine”. Oops, no search engine I recognize makes it to the top 10.

Okay, how about “best search engine”? Again, there aren’t too many familiar names in the top 10, although Dogpile does manage to sneak in at No. 8.

I’m getting desperate now, and serendipity is hanging by a thread, in mortal danger of giving way to unhealthy obsession. I type in “Larry and Sergei’s search engine,” figuring it’s time to get really specific. The strategy is lost on Google, which again serves up a list of unfamiliar sites, with the exception of Go.com in the No. 10 spot. Well, at least the first two letters are right.

One last stab in the dark: “Search engine with recent IPO that’s aiming for world domination.” Nada.

Maybe I’m using the wrong engine. I switch to Yahoo! And sure enough, there’s no identity crisis here. Yahoo! proudly ranks itself No. 1 for “search engine” and in a concession to the competition, throws the No. 2 spot to Google. Apparently, Yahoo! thinks more of Google than Google thinks of itself.

Let’s take Microsoft’s new algorithm for a spin. Again, MSN thinks a lot of SearchEngineWatch and gives them the top spot. And guess who gets No. 2? Google. Looking down the page, I see Search.com, AltaVista, Dogpile, Lycos, Northern Light (are they still around?), Webcrawler, and… no MSN. Didn’t even break the top 10. Well, maybe they haven’t gotten around to spidering themselves yet.

It’s time to Ask Jeeves. First, I had to scroll down past a zillion sponsored ads that pushed the real results off the page. And when I finally got to the results, they did a pretty good job of nailing the top engines. Like Yahoo!, Jeeves doesn’t mind blowing his own horn. Ask Jeeves is No. 1, Teoma (owned by Jeeves) is second, AltaVista third, Lycos fourth, AlltheWeb fifth, and Google comes in a distant sixth. Webcrawler, Dogpile, Yahoo!, and Excite round out the top 10.

All relevant, and all search engines, although the one-two finish of Ask.com properties smacks of a little judicious human intervention. Seems that Jeeves might know his stuff, even if he is a little egocentric. Google thinks Lycos is a search engine powerhouse, so how does Lycos feel about itself?

Well, Lycos apparently has no idea what a search engine actually is, because the only two search engines to break the top 10 are Overture and AOL. HotJobs is No. 1 and an eBay page for Thomas the Tank Engine is firmly embedded in the No. 3 spot. At least the HotJobs link might come in handy for the engineers currently working on the Lycos search algorithms.

There seems to be a building ground swell for AltaVista. Could this be a dark horse? I went to Yahoo!-owned AltaVista and found out that once again, the portal SearchEngineWatch takes the top spot. Is it coincidence that a portal for search engine optimization consistently takes the top spot, beating the engines at their own game? It’s deliciously ironic, if you ask me.

The irony continues with the fact that Google takes the No. 2 spot on the competitor’s engine, with hometown favorite AltaVista in No. 4, Yahoo in No. 5 and Dogpile in No. 6.

Survey Says…

And so, in a serendipitous, non-scientific poll, using GordRank, a sophisticated algorithm of my own invention, here are the top search engines, as ranked by the search engines themselves

1. Google (ranked higher by almost all the competitors than Google ranked themselves)
2. AltaVista
3. Yahoo!
4. Dogpile (yes, Dogpile)
5. Lycos
6. Teoma
7. All the Web
8. Webcrawler
9. Hotbot
10. Metacrawler

There are a couple of points that have to be said. Perhaps Larry and Sergei could hire a search optimization firm to help them rank better on Google. I know they have the money and it seems to be a challenge for them.

And despite Bill Gate’s bravado and bank account, no one seems to know that Microsoft has a search engine. Not even MSN!

Til next year, Happy Holidays!

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