Ex-Googlers' search engine draws fanfare, but testers prefer Google

Makers of Cuil tool claim to have larger Web index than any other search engine

While there has never been a shortage of would-be "Google-killers" — upstarts aiming to beat the search giant at its own game — few have generated fanfare like Cuil Inc. The start-up company's founders say that their search engine, also called Cuil (pronounced cool), offers an index that's three times larger than that of any other search engine.

Perhaps in anticipation of today's launch, Google Inc. on Friday boasted that it has tracked more than 1 trillion URLs on the Web. And the market leader's position was bolstered a bit today because the Cuil site was unavailable for some periods of time throughout the day.

Nonetheless, Cuil's reputation benefits from the backgrounds of those who launched the start-up firm. Anna Patterson, Cuil's president and chief operating officer, worked as an architect of Google's search index and led that company's Web page ranking team. Her co-founder and husband, Tom Costello, who is Cuil's CEO, researched and developed search engine technology at Stanford and IBM.

But despite Cuil's claim that it had indexed 120 billion Web pages and that it provides relevant results based on Web page content analysis, which goes beyond Google's link analysis techniques, some early reviewers questioned whether it can compete with Google.

Danny Sullivan, a blogger at Search Engine Land, acknowledged the pedigrees of the founders of the company. "These people know search," he wrote. "In particular, they know on-the-firing line, heavy-duty, industrial-strength search. Not only that, they're unleashing what appears to be a comprehensive service that anyone can use."

However, he debunked the company's claim that it uses content rather than popularity to link Web pages. Sullivan noted that he tested the search engine with a search for the term "Harry Potter." The Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix movie Web site came up first on Cuil, he noted.

"This is out of thousands of possible pages," he added. "How on earth can Cuil know just from the content on the page itself that the movie site should be in the top results, especially in a Web environment where people can (and will) custom-tailor content to mislead search algorithms? The answer is link analysis — counting links and effectively seeing who is pointed at the most. The twist is that it is done by measuring the links from pages relevant to what someone searches on."

He went on to note that today's largest search engine companies, Google, Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc., offer more than just the Web searching that Cuil is providing.

"News search, image search, video search, local search — these are just some of the verticals that Cuil lacks but which do get used by searchers," Sullivan pointed out. "Not offering these makes Cuil feel too focused on what 'old school' search used to be and [like it is] missing out on the Search 3.0 vertical and blended search revolution that has been going on."

While Cuil has a chance to pick up a bigger share of the search market than other start-ups, it is unlikely to threaten Google, he added.

"Google came along at a very special time," he noted. "It had better technology at a time when all the search engines had abandoned improving search, since that was seen as a loss leader. To date, Google is the real exception of 'a better mousetrap wins.'"

Michael Arrington, a blogger at TechCrunch, added that after testing Cuil with multiple search terms, he found it to be an "excellent search engine" but without the depth or relevancy of Google results. Arrington found that a search for "dog" returned 280 million results on Cuil and 498 million on Google.

"It seems pretty clear that Google's index of Web pages is significantly larger than Cuil's, unless we're randomly choosing the wrong queries," Arrington noted. "And Cuil's ranking isn't as good as Google's, based on the pure results returned from both queries." However, he did note that Cuil excelled in related categories, which returned results that were extremely relevant.

"With Google, we've all gotten used to trying a slightly different search to get the refined results we need," Arrington added. "Cuil does a good job of guessing what we'll want next and presents that in the top right widget. That means Cuil saves time for more research based queries."

Stan Schroeder, a blogger at Mashable, also tested the quality of Cuil for multiple searches compared to Google, and he found the newcomer lacking.

"The more I tried, the more I was convinced that Google is, quite simply, a vastly better search engine," he noted. "This is unfair, I know: Cuil is a very new product, and Google has been around for quite a while. No one can create a better search engine than Google, simply because Google does not only search Web sites, but — through its domination of the market — the entire Web bends to Google's will because every Web site wants to be positioned well on Google."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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