Productivity

When Not To Google: Searches You're Better Off Making Elsewhere

For the searching you do every day, go ahead and use the powerful, convenient, ever-improving Google. But for certain queries, other search engines are significantly better. Let’s dig into the searches you’re better off making at engines other than Google.Google’s good at a lot of things, but it also has to serve a lot of interests. Any relatively modern search engine knows that, in order to compete and differentiate, it has to do something different, something better, or something special, aside from general “katy perry video” searches. Here are the best search engines for tackling specific types of search:

DuckDuckGo: Quick Site Searches, Programming and Totally Anonymous Searching

Startup search engine DuckDuckGo (DDG for short) spells it out, right on their front page: “We don’t track you!” And they’re serious about that. Their privacy policy is an explainer and affirmation of user rights, written in plain English. The privacy settings allow you to get granular about what other sites see when you arrive from DDG, and if you’re using the TOR network for proxy privacy, DuckDuckGo is running its own helper server to provide total search security, end to end.

That’s nice, but what does DuckDuckGo do? It “bangs“. Bang, as in the term programmers use to refer to exclamation marks. By putting an exclamation in front of a site or resource you want to search, you can quickly search on that site from DuckDuckGo, whether you know how that search works or not. Searching !lifehacker linux uses our own site’s search engine to look up Linux posts (though you can shorten it to !lh, too). !amazon or !a triggers a product search on Amazon.com, and !yt a YouTube search. But you can loosely shoot from the hip and hit an astounding number of sites: !economist, !weather Boulder, !retailmenot green mountain coffee, and so on. With DuckDuckGo installed as a quick search option in your browser, it’s much easier to search a site this way than to type out site:economist.com libya and hunt through results.

There are lots of neat “bangs” to dig through, but take special note, programmers and general nerd practitioners: there are a lot of computer and code resources here. !python, !wpplugins, !github — the list goes on.

Blekko: Cruft-Free Results and Very Specific Things

Even after make a pretty big change to filter “content farms”, searching Google for anything that might be remotely popular, especially in the form of a how-to or question, continues to involve sorting through varying versions of on-demand writing. Some of it is decent, even helpful; much of it looks the same, though, and you often find yourself wishing for a more authoritative voice.

Enter Blekko. On its own, Blekko narrows down your search terms and filters out a lot of the ad-filled results you might come across. Search on a “hot” topic, like travel, product reviews or song lyrics, and Blekko automatically filters out sites that seem to exist mostly to capture traffic without providing too much new information. Search in the health field, and the results are narrowed down to a set of about 75 sites that Blekko’s editors trust.

So let’s say you’re an increasingly ridiculous home coffee enthusiast (ahem), and you want to make at home the latte foam “art” you’ll see in coffee shops. Lots of web sites are anticipating this search. The first three results from Google, from earlier this week, are shown at left: the first result is a WikiHow article, the second a box of YouTube videos, and the third from RateMyRosetta.com, where baristas and other foam-art enthusiasts can, well, rate each others’ leafy designs.

Blekko’s results are here, and they’re oriented more toward independent sites, by way of eliminating many of the less subtle grabs for your clicks. By way of disclosure, a Lifehacker post shows up as the second result, but I picked the how to make latte art search at random, from my brain.

It’s helpful to be able to skip the search-savvy sites when you’re looking for deeper knowledge. It’s also helpful to be able to explain a bit more clearly what you’re looking for. Google has modifiers for “must have” (kennedys +kennebunkport) and “not” (kennedys -"dead kennedys"), but you have to guess at them ahead of time. Let’s imagine you just finished watching Blade Runner for the first time (really?), and you’re now keen on learning how far we’ve come in making robots that look and act like humans — androids. But any search on “android” these days is chock full of apps, reviews and news about Google’s mobile phone OS. Blekko knows this, or at least has seen it happen, so as you type in “android“, you’re given a batch of “slashes” you can add to your search to narrow it down. “android /robotics” popped up during my Blekko test, and did a good job of (mostly) winnowing my search down to items related to human/robot hybrids.

Wolfram Alpha: Data, Statistics, Research, and “I Wonder”

There’s no simple way to explain what Wolfram Alpha does, other than to say it tries to make the entirety of human knowledge into solvable equations — simple, huh? It’s a big task, but Wolfram Alpha quietly does some pretty amazing things with the unique data sets it can rummage through. It’s best thought of as a place to ask questions, and wonder about numbers, percentages and other left brain ideas.

If you “asked” Google about how likely the average United Airlines flight was on time, versus Southwest Airlines, the top result is likely to be a blog post that features “Southwest vs United Airlines” in its title, but relates to television advertising and branding. Ask Wolfram Alpha, and the first result considers “United Airlines” and “Southwest Airlines” as they exist on the stock market — UAUA vs LUV. Neat, but not exactly what we wanted. But just under the search, Wolfram asks if you’d like to see your “United Airlines” as an airline. Click it and see.

Now we’re talking. Wolfram Alpha, culling data from nearly a dozen aviation sources, puts together a handy chart showing the on-time performance of United versus Southwest — along with enough statistics and comparisons to basically write an Aviation Business 101 paper by itself. At the bottom of the box, you can click to see Wolfram’s sources, and download a PDF of the data.

You have to spend some time with Wolfram to get a sense of what it’s capable of. Pretty much every Lifehacker editor has come across something unique and helpful it can do and written about it. A short, but by no means comprehensive, list would include:

Can you get to most of this data through good old Google? Eventually, sure. But when you’re looking for a specific piece of data, Wolfram can often provide it, and the context necessary to utilise it, in quicker fashion than you can comb through Google to eventually arrive at a PDF document.

What About Bing?

When most people with even a cursory knowledge of modern tech hear the phrase “search alternatives” or “non-Google search”, they might think Bing. Bing is growing in market share, and has some very robust search offerings. But Bing covers the same wide scope as Google, with an invitation to search for anything, everything, and sometimes get “quick answers” back with data tidbits. It does some topics in unique ways, like its Visual Search, video thumbnails and robust travel visualisation. But they have a lot of competition in each of those areas (and the Australian Bing site lacks many of the frills of the US version). If you find Bing to be head and shoulders above Google and specialty search sites, we’ll gladly take the hint in the comments.

Make These Secondary Searches Easier to Get To

As stated up top, most people know Google, like Google, and will continue to use Google as their go-to search. To make the secondary but very powerful search sites demonstrated above easier to search, you should add them to your browser’s search options, and make them very quick to fire off.

If you’re using Chrome, this is very easy. Head to any of the sites, do a search or two on them, then right-click in your address bar and select “Edit Search Engines”. You should see Blekko, DuckDuckGo and Wolfram Alpha included in your search options, listed in the left-most column. The middle column shows what you’d have to type into your Chrome address bar, and then hit space or Tab after, to search the site instantly; the default is the full site URL. Click on that middle section and give your alternative searches much shorter shortcuts: “ddg” for DuckDuckGo, perhaps, and maybe just “bk” for Blekko, as examples. With DuckDuckGo, in particular, the ability to use the “bangs” to quickly search Amazon, the New York Times, NewEgg, or wherever you’re looking from the address bar quickly becomes addictive.

In Firefox, you can add these sites to your right-hand search box, but it’s faster to activate them from the address bar. You do this by creating keyword bookmarks. One nice thing about doing this in Firefox is that the built-in bookmark syncing in Firefox 4 covers your custom keyword bookmarks, so you only need to set them up once, then use them on any Firefox installation.

Opera users, you simply need to right-click in the search field of your alternative search site, choose “Create search”, and assign a keyword, as described in Opera’s Help section. Safari fans, SafariKeywords looks like your best bet to get searching outside the standard box.

We only covered three major Google alternatives that have fairly specific uses — but we know there are many more. What kind of non-Google searching do you do, and where do you do it? We’d like to expand this post with your help, so leave your suggestions in the comments.