Serious searchers have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with Web search engines. It's great to be able to access Web content and we love each new improvement in engines, but we hate that they just don't perform with the control and precision of the powerful search retrieval software that we use on the traditional services. We try one after another in a futile attempt to find the best one. However, recent developments are providing Web users with an increasingly sophisticated array of smart search tools, some involving contextual linking and navigating, and some designed as desktop applications that work without even opening a browser. They represent the next level of search technology, and should spawn additional innovations.
The Dialog Corp. (soon to be BrightStation following the purchase of its online services division by Thomson) recently launched its WebCheck desktop search tool, a free consumer application (downloadable at http://www.webtop.com), that the company claims "will forever change the way people surf the Web." This new tool, which uses Dialog's Muscat search technology to provide concept-based searching, enables users to highlight entire sentences or paragraphs (or entire files) in e-mail messages, Word documents, or text on a Web page and, with a click of the mouse, automatically connect to and receive relevant information from the Web. (An earlier beta version of the program was known as k-check.)
Just prior to the WebCheck debut, Google (http://www.google.com) announced the availability of Google Browser Buttons—one called Google Search—for free download. With a Google Search button added to the browser, users can highlight a word or phrase on any Web page they're viewing, click the button, and launch a search for related information using the popular search engine. It looks to be similar to Lycos SeeMore (http://www.lycos.com/seemore), which debuted last August. Lycos SeeMore is a downloadable add-on feature for Internet Explorer browsers that allows users to launch a Lycos search from a selected word, phrase, or image anywhere on a Web page.
Flyswat 2.0 is another navigational tool that lets users click on highlighted words and find related Web pages. Flyswat (http://www.flyswat.com) calls its capabilities "Deep Navigation," which it describes as "the ability to simultaneously cut through millions of Web pages and link directly to the most relevant information, while quickly surfing from page to page." It also works with any Windows application, not just within a browser. The software highlights the relevant words with yellow-green underlines, called flycons, which users then click on to retrieve related information.
Finally, Autonomy has just released Kenjin (http://www.autonomy.com/kenjin), which uses Autonomy's core technology that is capable of analyzing a piece of text and identifying its main ideas. According to the company, this technology gives Kenjin the unique ability to understand the concepts—not just the keywords—in browsers, e-mail, or desktop applications. After analyzing the text in a Web page, Word document, or e-mail message, Kenjin automatically recommends links to relevant information from the Web, the PC, or individuals who have opted to share their interests with others. The links are displayed in a small window or a tool bar.
Some of the best researchers in the information retrieval field are working on the development of these new search tools. They are using pattern-matching algorithms, natural language processing, contextual analysis, concept extraction, and other sophisticated techniques to improve the efficiency of information retrieval—and, of course, to develop that next killer application. So, give some of these add-on products a test drive and then give the developers your feedback. After all, who better to critique these search applications than serious professional searchers.