17 May 2009

Testing Wolfram Alpha

A lot has been written about Wolfram Alpha, most of it lavish praise. Today it seems to have gone live and I thought of testing a few queries which I also tested on Google.

I saw a reference to Nova Scotia and had some doubt whether it was in Canada or the USA. Google returned a few sites dealing with travel to Nova Scotia (Canada), a link to the Wikipedia entry on Nova Scotia etc.

Wolfram Alpha returned a detailed reference to Nova 1 (spacecraft) with its location at Scotia, New York, United States. It went on to give me detailed information about its altitude, instantaneous velocity, average velocity, average latitude, orbital period, inclination, orbit type etc which is of course not what I wanted.

It reminds me of the girl in the nursery rhyme. "When she was good she was very, very good. And when she was bad she was horrid."

That made me try out Mother Goose on Wolfram Alpha. Disappointingly it said: "Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input." It offered suggestions but again they were all far off the mark. Google got it right with the first entry. You don't even need to go to it. The excerpt says: "Mother Goose is a well-known figure in the literature of fairy tales and nursery rhymes."

Wolfram seems to be a bit like the I'm Feeling Lucky button on Google. If you know that what Google will return as the first entry is what you want you can click the I'm Feeling Lucky button but otherwise it's best to go the conventional way.

Category: Search-Engines

07 February 2008

Microsoft's bid for Yahoo!

If you hitch one blind man to another, will they be able to figure out the way? Microsoft apparently believes they will. Or so it would seem from its unsolicited bid for Yahoo.

It's a strange belief. Anyone who does a fair bit of searching every day will know that neither Yahoo! nor Microsoft know much about search. Their skills in search are not complementary so it is not at all clear how buying Yahoo will help Microsoft at all.

If I were a Yahoo shareholder I would welcome the bid of course. My strategy would be to sell out for the combination of cash + Microsoft shares, and sell the Microsoft shares at the earliest opportunity. Its share price can only go down because the merger, if it goes through, could well be the biggest error in Microsoft's history. And the costliest too.

As a Yahoo employee, however, my strategy would be to forget about search and use Google as the default search engine on its site, which is of course what Yahoo was doing until February 2004, that is to say, just three years ago.

It might also not be a bad idea to use Google Adsense on all or most of Yahoo's pages, perhaps after wangling a deal so that Yahoo gets to keep 95% or so of the revenue. This is the right moment to push through such a deal because Google is anxious to keep Yahoo out of Microsoft's hands. But even here, Yahoo would need to reduce the clutter on its pages to give AdSense some chance of figuring out what ads are most suited to them.

Much has been written about Yahoo's Panama technology. It's my belief that it will be a failure because the click rate for ads on a page depends on how accurately the ads match the content of the page. Panama will fail for the same reason that Yahoo has failed in search, because matching ads to page content requires superior search technology.

Yahoo's present pathetic condition is saddening because at one time it was "the portal" to the Internet. But Internet lifespans are shorter than industrial lifespans. Look at Netscape, AOL, Altavista ...

Category: Search-Engines

07 August 2007

An algorithm idea for Yahoo and MSN Live

Every major search engine has teams that test specific keywords or sets of keywords. When the existing algorithm does not yield good results for a certain keyword it is tweaked to improve the results. But changing the algorithm could send results haywire for a whole range of other keywords. Is there any standard keyword or set of keywords that can be used to test the algorithm whenever it is changed?

I like to think there is, and it is a search that I keep doing everyday because it is related to the websites I run. All of them are search directories or search engines so I keep testing searches like "search engine UAE" or "search engine India" to see how my sites are faring.

If Yahoo or MSN Live want to improve their algorithms they would do well to test them using these keywords. Right now their results are quite abysmal. Searching for "search engine" followed by the name of a country on Google yields a high percentage of search engines or directories in the top results, but for Yahoo and MSN Live, the results are almost always dominated by search engine optimization companies.

That is really the test of the algorithm. The SEO company pages will have the words "search engines" all over them. How should those pages be excluded so that only search engine pages figure in the results? The answer obviously lies in giving high importance to the text on anchor tags linking to those pages.

The moment Yahoo and MSN figure that out they may get around to giving Google a run for its money. Right now they are nowhere near doing it.

Category: Search-Engines

14 May 2007

Submitting Sites to Web Directories

Every day we receive tens of site submissions for the 12 country search directories we run. Many never get past the screening process. Why? And what can you do to make sure you get listed?

The big search engines have bots that spider millions of pages every hour. Directories have no such luck. We have to manually read through your site. This costs time and money, and anything you can do to help us save on both will make us look upon your site more kindly.

Whoever said that a picture is worth a thousand words was obviously not thinking of flash animations. If you insist on wasting our time with fancy things which whirl and dance, make sure you have a prominent "Skip Intro" so that we can escape and get to the text quickly.

Search engine optimisation experts will tell you that the title is the most important thing on the page for search engines (for those not familiar with html: the title is what appears right at the top of the browser, and between the title tags in the source code). It is equally important to us, because it tells us at one glance what your site is about. If your site has no title we have to spend that much more time figuring out what you want to say.

If you run a hotel in Alabama, say so in the title. Don't leave it blank or let it say "Home Page" or "New Page 1".

Tell us succinctly and concretely what it is that you do or manufacture. An "About us" page is ideal for the purpose. Try and compress everything about your company in one brief sentence. If we like it, we may use your exact words. And for heaven's sake, don't put a mission statement in the About Us page. Most mission statements we see are quite pointless. You could swap a hospital mission statement with a bakery mission statement and no one would be the wiser.

Don't make us click ten links trying to find out where you are located. The "About Us" page is a good place to put this information. Else, put it on the Contact Us page. Hey, why not put it in the title as well!

What are your main products and services? Again, before writing a lot of fluff, list out the main products or main product categories, and put it in a page that can be found easily.

If you run a purely online service your chances of getting listed are very bleak. Our experience is that most such sites won't last out the year. Weeding them out costs us even more time and money than listing them, because we scrupulously check our database for dead links all the time.

Make sure that your domain name is not due to expire in a few weeks. If it is dead when we revisit it and your domain name registration is valid only for a few days or weeks more, the chances are that we will delete it from the database.

Your web site is like the receptionist in your office -- the main point of contact that the world has with your business or service. You wouldn't put a rude or stupid person to handle your customer calls. So why put out a web site that confuses your customer and wastes her time.

Of course you can break all these rules and if your content is compelling enough we will still list you. And you can follow all these rules and if your content is not good enough we won't list you -- even if you link to our site.

Finally remember this: Our directories are built up mainly out of submissions from website owners. So keep sending them in.

Category: Search-Engines

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