Exalead, Real Competition for Google and Yahoo?

Who would have thought the French could find a way to get back on the good side of people who vowed to boycott French fries? Well, maybe they’ve managed to do just that. With U.S. Internet users becoming search savvy and complaining about the glitches in even the top search engines like Google and Yahoo, the emergence of a superior search engine would definitely tickle our fancy, even if it is a product of France.

Exalead (which powers AOL France’s search) works in quite the same way that other search engines do. You type in a key-term and it brings up results for Web pages containing content relevant to that term. However, while Exalead is still in its beta stage after being “officially” released in October of last year, it still offers advanced search features that most search engine don’t — one advanced search feature in particular that no other search engine has.

Exalead is the only search engine to offer a “proximity search” feature that dictates that search results containing search terms must be within 16 words of each other to be relevant. While this might not appear to be a significant breakthrough, those who have entered a search term, such as “pizza delivery,” and received results for pages with a 20,000 word count in which “pizza” and “delivery” are separated by over 15,000 of those words realize the benefit of such a tool. And while you can enclose both terms in quotation marks to ensure they stay together, suppose the searcher didn’t intend to find a pizza delivery service or a long dissertation discussing the benefits of pizza with one mention of the word “delivery” near its end. What if the searcher instead is really searching for a job listing for a pizza delivery person that could be phrased a number of different ways?

For example, the author of the job post could have titled his page or listing “Deliver Pizza – Make $200 in tips a day!” or “Do you love pizza? … Be a delivery boy part time.” With search the possibilities are almost always endless and anything that can make it a little easier to ensure that search results are as accurate as possible to the searchers’ intentions is always a good thing.

The search tool also allows users to pick and choose which terms results should “preferably contain,” “must contain” and “must not contain.” In the case of users for whom using whole words is difficult, the search engine offers a true truncation option. If a user entered the term “pe,” she would receive results for not a word such as “pea” and its plural “peas” (a function offered by most search engines). Her results would also include pages containing the terms “peanut,” “pen,” “pelt,” etc. For other searchers who usually use a dictionary when performing a search but left it at home for some reason, the tool also allows him to search phonetically with its “Approximate” spelling options. And for searchers who use the Internet solely for the purpose of cheating on crossword puzzles, Exalead offers a “Regular Expression” search option which means that a user can type in just certain letters of a word to receive results containing words that follow that pattern. If a user typed in “.h…e.” their results could include pages containing information on the “theater” or, more fittingly, “cheater.”

While the implications for a search engine with functionalities such as Exalead’s are huge, one drawback remains — the engine does not perform regular updates of its index. Though the Exalead index has passed the 1 billion mark, its results can be significantly skewed if those pages are not regularly spidered. A company representative noted that Exalead is still in its beta phase and that regular updates are in the very near future.

With the current search engine giants regularly one-upping each other, the introduction of a tool like Exalead into the general search market could lead to even more frenzied search engine competition. But, as is usually the case, more competition means more options for search engine marketers and better results for searchers.

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