If a universe of digital information is only keystrokes away, finding the best sources among a search engine's rankings can sometimes feel like looking for the brightest star in the sky -- while suffering from conjunctivitis.
Any search engine on the Internet can produce information about high-heeled shoes, but suppose a shopper wants to find a specific brand for the cheapest price at a local retailer? What if the hunt is for a picture of those dream shoes posted on an online forum months before the actual purchase? How are consumers, researchers or anyone else online seeking highly specific information expected to know which one of millions of search results will provide the exact information needed?
"Think about the last time you tried to buy an MP3 player or a digital camera or a car," said Eric Silver, founder and CEO of North Shore-based consumer search engine company Pikimal.
"The amount of education you have to do to make a decision is really intense. And if it's a decision you make infrequently, like a car, I think we've kind of just gotten used to it. But for the other decisions we make, we're not used to it. I think search engines really fail us there."
The science of search has come a long way since the early 1990s, when companies such as AltaVista and Lycos used keywords as the primary criteria for rankings.
Once Google came on the scene and began using a website's popularity in terms of links from legitimate sites in 1999, it set a standard where today search engines use hundreds of metrics, including popularity, to pan for the best rankings and most legitimate sites.
Chris Hornak, director of operations for South Side-based Internet marketing company Eyeflow, said Google's changes have prevented scammers from faking their way to the top of rankings through keyword abuse and have helped the best websites succeed.
The country's online seekers apparently agree with that assessment, considering Google was responsible for 66.7 percent of the country's searches in May, or 11.7 billion quests for information, according to Reston, Va.-based Internet research firm, Comscore.
"Google put more weight on the strength of the brand. They want to know, do [brands] have a social media profile on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn? Is that profile active? Does it have followers? Are a lot of people talking about your brand? If a lot of people are talking about your brand, there's a good chance people want to see your website in search results," Mr. Hornak said.
Despite Google's constant retooling, a new crop of search engines geared toward the specific could be emerging as the next leaders to navigate cyberspace.
Pikimal, which ranks product searches according to criteria set by users such as price and durability, provides detailed descriptions and comparative information for more than 350 products, from appliances to charities. Once a user decides on a product or service, he can simply click on links to go to a site where it can be found for the best bargain.
Pikimal, which launched October 2010, joins the likes of Valley Forge, Pa.-based DuckDuckGo.com, which uses information from crowd-sourced sites such as Wikipedia to provide relevant search results, and Blekko, a Redwood City, Calif.-based engine that allows users to determine which results are most relevant for specific searches.
Tweaks such as those made by Blekko and DuckDuckGo may seem minor at first glance, but the small differences in search engine algorithms determine what users ultimately see.
A quick Google search of the word "Pittsburgh" pulls up links from the city's Web page, VisitPittsburgh and the city's Wikipedia entry among its top five rankings.
Conducting the same search on Microsoft's Bing search engine or Yippy.com, a Fort Myers, Fla.-based search company formerly owned by Squirrel Hill-based search company Vivisimo, puts the Pittsburgh.net site among each of their top five search results.
Similarly, a Google search for "Luke Ravenstahl" lists the mayor's Twitter account and campaign site in its top 10, while Yippy features the Twitter account, campaign site and eight links to stories at news-archiving site highbeam.com. Bing includes a link to Mr. Ravenstahl's MySpace profile and its ranking with other MySpace users among its top 10 (he ranks a 4.3, if anyone's interested).
Blekko users tended to agree with the choices that made most of the other engines' top 10 lists (Pittsburgh.net among them) but shifted the order so that the Steelers and University of Pittsburgh sites were included among its top three links. DuckDuckGo has the university and the team's site ranked Nos. 9 and 10 respectively.
Mr. Hornak advises his clients to think beyond domain names and keywords to compete in today's search market. He warned that search engines change algorithms constantly and companies should be prepared for shifts that can bump them out of the top rankings.
"Having Pittsburgh.net or a [similar] domain with a keyword, you're going to do well on search engines. But without branding and link quality, it's not going to get traction on Google," he said.
Even as companies continue to build quality links for new algorithms, they might also want to begin to find ways to adapt to up-and-coming search engines designed to promote specific products.
Pikimal has had more than 2 million users since its launch but has seen a surge as of late, with more than 30 percent growth over the past week.
In addition, established companies such as Google are promoting customization features that allow users to search among blogs, discussions, books and applications surrounding a specific subject.
Mr. Silver doubts niche searches or searches controlled by users will completely replace Google but says they're bound to challenge its supremacy.
"If you want to know what it was Courtney Love did -- unless someone's ranking Courtney Love or trying to choose which album to buy -- we're not going to have that information and we're not building tools to help you find it. Google is really good at that kind of [thing]," he said.
"But I would say there's a subclass of search, which is where you're trying to make decisions, and I think most people are pretty frustrated with that aspect of search."businessnews
Deborah M. Todd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652.