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Just Get Me the Answer, Please
by
Posted On April 1, 2005
We've seen a growing trend in Web search toward supplying answers instead of just a bunch of links. A number of the search engines now offer smarter search features that give direct answers, such as weather, stock quotes, definitions, conversion calculators, flight information, etc.—even times of local movies with reviews. 

One example of a specialized site is the free Answers.com, which was launched in January by GuruNet. The site draws from more than 150 reference sources, including encyclopedias and dictionaries, to generate information on more than a million topics. GuruNet also supplies content to Amazon's A9 search engine for a similar look-up service. (See the NewsBreak at http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbreader.asp?ArticleID=16286.) 

GuruNet recently signed a deal with Google. When Answers.com's visitors need information beyond the site's selected reference content, Answers.com now offers a co-branded version of Google's search functionality, allowing users to remain at the site. Just a few days ago, the company launched a beta mobile version of its service (http://mobile.answers.com) for users of mobile devices and browser-based cell phones. 

A main selling point of the Ask.com site from Ask Jeeves has been to just ask a question and get an answer. The company has worked steadily to provide enhancements and improve results. Ask Jeeves uses a knowledgebase of questions and answer links compiled by human editors. (The company will soon have deeper pockets after it is acquired by IAC/InterActiveCorp, which just signed an agreement to buy it.)

A recent article in The New York Times reported that Ask Jeeves will introduce technology this spring that will further the question-and-answer abilities of its engine. According to the article, "the new feature, Direct Answers From Search, will search across the entire Web, rather than simply from its own database, to find answers to natural-language queries (that is, those phrased as questions rather than mere search terms)."

A new, recently launched search engine claims to provide full-sentence answers to questions. Its slogan is, "where results make sense." Factbites (http://www.factbites.com) was created by Rapid Intelligence, a content technology company based in Sydney, Australia. Its focus is upon computational linguistics, data mining, data warehousing, and artificial intelligence. These competencies are demonstrated on Factbites, a search engine that the company says is more interested in content analysis than link popularity. 

While the site calls itself a hybrid—a search/encyclopedia—it searches open Web sources, not the contents of actual encyclopedias or reference works. "It seeks out authoritative and informative content, preferring encyclopedia-style fact-based descriptions to the chatty, spammy, and inconsequential." 

The site boldly challenges users to compare Factbites results to Google results, which it illustrates with some examples. It claims: "When searching for quick information on the sort of things you'd usually go to an encyclopedia for, the results are surprisingly clear—Factbites wins hands down." In this beta release, 800,000 topics are covered. 

A company called Brainboost recently announced a new version of its site (http://www.brainboost.com). The site has been operating in "stealth mode" for the past year. Brainboost uses artificial intelligence, machine learning, and NLP to answer plain English questions. Its patent-pending AnsweRank technology is available for licensing. 

Brainboost doesn't tap databases or use human editors. It relies completely on finding answers out on the Web. While links are provided to sources, the results and source credibility vary considerably. One of the answers to the question "why is the sky blue?" is provided by a .edu site: "A clear cloudless day-time sky is blue because molecules in the air scatter blue light from the sun more than they scatter red light." However, it also lists this whimsical answer: "The sky is blue because if it were green you wouldn't know where to stop mowing." 

The company said that a study it conducted confirmed that "while all major search engines barely reach a 50 percent success rate in providing the answer to a user's question in the first page of search results, Brainboost clocks in at about 87 percent. When looking at how many of those actually had the answer as the first result, the gap is even wider at 23 percent for all search engines and 75 percent for Brainboost." 

If you want to make sure the answers you get are from standard reference works, you may want to stick with subscription resources, such as the library reference service xrefer. Look for a review of Answers.com and xrefer in the upcoming June issue of Searcher. 


Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.


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