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Search Engines, Directories and Hybrids

Before naming names, it's important to explain the difference between search engines and directories. They are often confused.

Search Engines: Also called "spiders" or "crawlers," search engines constantly visit web sites on the Internet in order to create catalogs of web pages. Because they run automatically and index so many web pages, search engines may often find information not listed in directories.

Directories: Unlike search engines, directories are created by humans. Sites must be submitted, then they are assigned to an appropriate category or categories. Because of the human role, directories can often provide better results than search engines. Yahoo is an example of a directory.

Hybrid Search Engines: To further confuse matters, some search engines also have an associated directory. These are sites that have been reviewed or rated. For the most part, these reviewed sites do not appear as the "default" when a query is made to a hybrid search engine. Instead, a user must consciously choose to see the reviews.

Below, we provide a guide to the major search engines of the web. Why are these considered to be "major" search engines? Because they are either well-known or well-used. For webmasters, the major search engines are the most important places to be listed, because they can potentially generate so much traffic. For searchers, well-known, commercially-backed search engines generally mean more dependable results. These search engines are more likely to be well-maintained and upgraded when necessary, to keep pace with the growing web.

Top Choices


Voted three times Most Outstanding Search Engine by Search Engine Watch readers, Google has a well-deserved reputation as the top choice for those searching the web. The crawler-based service provides both comprehensive coverage of the web along with great relevancy. It's highly recommended as a first stop in your hunt for whatever you are looking for.

Google provides the option to find more than web pages, however. Using "tabs" on the top of the search box on the Google home page, you can easily seek out images from across the web, discussions that are taking place on Usenet newsgroups, scan through human-compiled information provided from the Open Directory (see below) or locate news information Also offered, though not through tabs, is catalog searching and product searching.

Google is also know for the wide range of features it offers, such as cached links that let you "resurrect" dead pages or see older versions of recently changed ones. It offers excellent spell checking, easy access to dictionary definitions, integration of stock quotes, street maps, telephone numbers and more. See Google's help page for an entire rundown on some of these features. The Google Toolbar has also won a popular following for the easy access it provides to Google and its features directly from the Internet Explorer browser.

In addition to Google's unpaid editorial results, the company also operates its own advertising programs. The cost-per-click AdWords program places ads on Google as well as some of Google's partners. Similarly, Google is also a provider of unpaid editorial results to some other search engines. For a list of major partnerships, see the Search Providers Chart.

Google was originally a Stanford University project by students Larry Page and Sergey Brin called BackRub. By 1998, the name had been changed to Google, and the project jumped off campus and became the private company Google. It remains privately held today.

All the Web (FAST)

An excellent crawler-based search engine, All The Web provides both comprehensive coverage of the web and outstanding relevancy. If you tried Google and didn't find it, All The Web should probably be next on your list. Indeed, it's a first stop search engine, for some.

In addition to web page results, provides the ability to search for news stories, pictures, video clips, MP3s and FTP files. The site is operated by FAST and used as a showcase for FAST's search technology. results are also provided to other search sites around the world, with its strongest partnership being with Terra Lycos. launched in May 1999.


Launched in 1994, Yahoo is the web's oldest "directory," a place where human editors organize web sites into categories. However, in October 2002, Yahoo made a giant shift to using Google's crawler-based listings for its main results.

If Yahoo is now powered by Google, then why bother using it? For one thing, you might find that the way Yahoo "enhances" Google's listings with information from its own directory may make search results more readable.

In addition, Yahoo's search results pages still show "Directory Category Matches." When offered, these will take you to a list of web sites that have been reviewed and approved by a human editor.

It's also possible to do a pure search of just the human-compiled Yahoo Directory, which is how the old or "classic" Yahoo used to work. To do this, search from the Yahoo Directory home page, as opposed to the regular home page. Then you'll get both Directory Category Matches and "Directory Site Matches," which are the top web site matches drawn from all categories of the Yahoo Directory.

Sites pay a fee to be included in the Yahoo Directory's commercial listings, though they must meet editor approval before being accepted. Non-commercial content is accepted for free.

Consider Yahoo any time you think you might be well served by having a list of human-reviewed web sites. It's also a good choice for popular queries, since the category listings it provides may help you narrow in and refine your query. Doing a pure Yahoo Directory search also provides an unique human view of the web.

Finally, expect further changes at Yahoo throughout 2003. The company expect to complete its purchase of Inktomi -- crawler-based rival to Google -- by April 2003.

MSN Search
MSN Search

Microsoft is known for constantly reworking its software products until they get them right, and MSN Search is a shining example of the company putting that same effort into an online product. In particular, the company has its own team of editors that monitors the most popular searches being performed and then hand-picks sites that are believed to be the most relevant. After performing a search, "Popular Topics" shown below the search box on the results page are also suggestions built largely by editors to guide you into making a more refined search. When appropriate, search results may also feature links to encyclopedia content from Microsoft Encarta or news headlines, at the top of the page.

Of course, humans editors can't do everything, so MSN Search also relies on search providers for answers to many of its queries. Usually, it will be human-powered results from the LookSmart directory that dominate the page. Unlike when MSN editors are involved, these human-powered results are not hand-picked to match a query. Instead, MSN uses its own search algorithm to sift through all the listings from LookSmart to automatically find answers that are believed to be best. More about LookSmart is described below.

For more obscure queries, it is crawler-based results from Inktomi that are provided. More about Inktomi is described below. By the way, if you'd prefer to get "pure" Inktomi results via MSN Search, you'll need to use the MSN Search Advanced Search page.

Overall, MSN Search provides a blend of human-powered directory information and crawler coverage different from any of the other top choices listed above. It's a high quality resource that provides its own unique view of the web and one worth checking.

Strongly Consider

AOL Search
AOL Search

AOL Search provides users with editorial listings that come from Google's crawler-based index. Indeed, the same search on Google and AOL Search will come up with very similar matches. So, why would you use AOL Search? Primarily because you are an AOL user. The "internal" version of AOL Search provides links to content only available within the AOL online service. In this way, you can search AOL and the entire web at the same time. The "external" version lacks these links. Why wouldn't you use AOL Search? If you like Google, many of Google's features such as "cached" pages are not offered by AOL Search.

Ask Jeeves
Ask Jeeves

Ask Jeeves initially gained fame in 1998 and 1999 as being the "natural language" search engine that let you search by asking questions and responded with what seemed to be the right answer to everything.

In reality, technology wasn't what made Ask Jeeves perform so well. Behind the scenes, the company at one point had about 100 editors who monitored search logs. They then went out onto the web and located what seemed to be the best sites to match the most popular queries.

Humans are still used at Ask Jeeves, though the number of editors is now only around 10. Nevertheless, the human-provided answers may still be the selling point for why some people, especially those new to the web, may want to use Ask Jeeves. For popular queries, the human-selected matches in the "Click Ask below for your answers" sections of the results may feel very relevant. If shown, these appear at the very top and bottom of the search results page.

Besides humans, Ask Jeeves also uses crawler-based technology to provide results to its users. These results come from the Teoma search engine that it owns.

Ask Jeeves also owns the Direct Hit service, but results from Direct Hit are no longer offered to the public directly through the Direct Hit site.

Hot Bot

HotBot provides easy access to the web's four major crawler-based search engines:, Google, Inktomi and Teoma. Unlike a meta search engine, it cannot blend the results from all of these crawlers together. Nevertheless, it's a fast, easy way to get different web search "opinions" in one place.

The "4-in-1" option at HotBot was introduced in December 2002. However, HotBot has a long history as a search brand before this date.

HotBot debuted in May 1996, it gained a strong following among serious searchers for the quality and comprehensiveness of its crawler-based results, which were provided by Inktomi, at the time. It also caught the attention of experienced web users and techies, especially for the unusual colors and interface it continues to sport today.

HotBot gained more notoriety when it switched over to using Direct Hit's "clickthrough" results for its main listings in 1999. Direct Hit was then one of the "hot" search engines that had recently appeared. Unfortunately, the quality of Direct Hit's results couldn't match those of another "hot" player that had debuted at the same time, Google. HotBot's popularity began to drop.

Even worse, HotBot also suffered by being owned by Lycos (now Terra Lycos). Lycos had acquired HotBot when it purchased Wired Digital in October 1998. Lycos failed to make search a priority on its flagship Lycos site as well as HotBot through much of 1999 and 2000, as it focused instead on adding "portal" features. The company refocused on search in late 2001, making significant improvements to the Lycos site and, as noted, reworked the HotBot site at the end of 2002.


Lycos is one of the oldest search engines on the web, launched in 1994. It ceased crawling the web for its own listings in April 1999 and instead uses crawler-based results provided by FAST (see above). So why bother with Lycos rather than using FAST's own site? You might like some of the features that Lycos provides.

"Fast Forward" lets you see search results in one side of your screen and the actual pages listed in another. Relevant categories of human-compiled information from the Open Directory appear at the bottom of the search results page. At the top of the page, Lycos will suggest other searches related to your original topic right under the search box. Perhaps you might even like the look and feel better! Whatever the reason, under the hood, Lycos provides all the same relevancy and comprehensiveness you'll find at

Lycos is owned by Terra Lycos, a company formed with Lycos and Terra Networks merged in October 2000. Terra Lycos also owns the HotBot search engine.


Teoma is a crawler-based search engine owned by Ask Jeeves. It has a smaller index of the web than its rival crawler-competitors Google,, Inktomi and AltaVista. However, being large doesn't make much of a difference when it comes to popular queries, and Teoma's won praise for its relevancy since it appeared in 2000. Some people also like its "Refine" feature, which offers suggested topics to explore after you do a search. The "Resources" section of results is also unique, pointing users to page that specifically serve as link resources about various topics. Teoma was purchased by Ask Jeeves in September 2001 and also provides some results to that web site.

Search Providers

The companies below are really in the business of providing search results to other people, rather than hoping you'll visit their own sites to search. They are listed here primarily to provide further explanation of how they partner with some of the search engines listed above.


Inktomi is unusual in that it is the only major search engine on this page that does not offer its own search site. If you go to the Inktomi site listed above, you'll only find company information, not the ability to search the web. Instead, Inktomi prefers to be solely a "behind-the-scenes" partner for other search engines that need results, such as MSN Search (listed above).

Among the major search engines, Inktomi is the second-oldest crawler. It briefly operated as an experimental search engine at UC Berkeley. However, the creators then formed their own company in 1996 with the same name and gained their first customer, HotBot, in the middle of that year.

Today, Inktomi continues to crawl the web. The company had been left behind by rivals Google and in terms of comprehensiveness, but changes made in the summer of 2002 made it much more competitive. Yahoo seeks to acquire the company.


LookSmart is a human-compiled directory of web sites. The company does operate its own web site, but this really isn't intended for the public to use. Instead, similar to Inktomi, LookSmart provides its results to other search engines that need listings.

LookSmart gathers its listings in two ways. Commercial sites pay to be listed in its commercial categories, making the service very much like an electronic "Yellow Pages." However, volunteer editors at the LookSmart-owned Zeal directory also catalog sites into non-commercial categories for free. Though Zeal is a separate web site, its listings are integrated into LookSmart's results.

LookSmart launched independently in October 1996, was backed by Reader's Digest for about a year, and then company executives bought back control of the service.

Open Directory Project (DMOZ)

The Open Directory uses volunteer editors to catalog the web. Formerly known as NewHoo, it was launched in June 1998. It was acquired by AOL Time Warner-owned Netscape in November 1998, and the company pledged that anyone would be able to use information from the directory through an open license arrangement.

While you can search at the Open Directory site itself, this is not recommended. The site has no "backup" results that kick in should there not be a match in the human-compiled database. In addition, the ranking of sites during keyword searching is poor, while alphabetical ordering is used when you choose to "browse" categories by topic.

Instead, to scan the valuable information compiled by the Open Directory, consider using the version offered by Google, the Google Directory. Here, keyword searching uses Google's refined relevancy algorithms and makes use of link analysis to better propel good pages from the human database to the top. In addition, when viewing sites by category, they will be listed in "PageRank" order, which means the most popular sites based on analyzing links from across the web will be listed first.


Formerly called GoTo until late 2001, Overture is an extremely popular paid placement search engine that provides ads to many of the search engines listed above. It is a Paid Listings Search Engine only.

Other Choices

The sites below are "major" in the sense that they either still receive significant amounts of traffic or they've earned a reputation in the past that still causes some people to consider them to be important. For various reasons explained below, they are not among our top search choices. However, certainly feel free to try them. They could turn out to be top choices for you.


AltaVista is the oldest crawler-based search engine on the web. It opened in December 1995 and for several years was the "Google" of its day, in terms of providing relevant results and having a loyal group of users that loved the service.

Sadly, an attempt to turn AltaVista into a portal site in 1998 saw the company lose track of the importance of search. Over time, relevancy dropped, as did the freshness of AltaVista's listings and the crawler's coverage of the web.

Today, AltaVista is once again focused on search. Improvements have been made, but crawlers such as Google and still provide more comprehensive results. Because of this, AltaVista is probably a third-choice crawler, one to try if you haven't found what you are looking for at one of its competitors.

AltaVista does remains strong is in terms of some of the specialty searching it offers. It provides a good image search service, and you can look for video and audio clips, as well. It also has an outstanding news search service.

AltaVista was originally owned by Digital, then taken over by Compaq, when that company purchased Digital in 1998. AltaVista was later spun off into a private company, which is now controlled by CMGI.

Netscape Search
Netscape Search

Owned by AOL Time Warner, Netscape Search uses Google for its main listings, just as does AOL's other major search site, AOL Search. So why use Netscape Search rather than Google? Unlike with AOL Search, there's no compelling reason to consider it. The main difference between Netscape Search and Google is that Netscape Search will list some of Netscape's own content at the top of its results. Netscape also has a completely different look and feel than Google. If you like either of these reasons, then try Netscape Search. Otherwise, you're probably better off just searching at Google.

Wise Nut

Like Teoma, WiseNut is a crawler-based search engine that attracted attention when it appeared on the scene in 2001. Like Teoma, WiseNut features good relevancy. Unlike Teoma, WiseNut has a large database, making it nearly as comprehensive as Google, and Inktomi. However, the WiseNut database has consistently been months out of date. This incredible staleness should be corrected in early 2003, when WiseNut's owner LookSmart is promising to revamp the engine. LookSmart bought WiseNut in April 2002. If the revamp happens, then WiseNut may deliver on its initial promise.

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