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Qwant and instaGrok: two Google-alts.

As your diligent database reviewer, I am always on the lookout for potential topics. I'm particularly on the alert for "Google-alts," or search engines that work differently from the dominant model: Google and its look-alikes, Bing, Yahoo, and Ask.com. There are hundreds, or possibly thousands, of non-Google search engines, but most are specialized. A true Google-alt-a comprehensive search engine that produces very different results from Google--is much rarer. For a database reviewer, finding a new Google--alt is similar to a bird-watcher finally spotting a rare and long-sought-after avian.

Two Google-alts worth spotting are Qwant and instaGrok. They are genuine Google-alts, with wide-ranging subject coverage, non-Google results, and, adding to the fun, distinctive data presentations. With any database review, there are two questions: What does it do, and how well does it do it? With a Google-alt, there is a third question: Does it do anything that will make you turn to it, even occasionally, instead of to Google?

A Swiss Army Knife for Web Search

Qwant (qwant.com) says that it is the "first 360[degrees] search engine" that "brings together the entire digital universe on one page." Its main distinction is to run your query across different kinds of web content, with all results displayed on a single page. Qwant is the work of a French development team and was launched in 2013.

Qwant runs your query across five categories of web content: Web, News, "Qnowledge Graph," Social, and Shopping.

* Web is a conventional web search, in principle, not unlike Google's. It returns up to 30 relevance-ranked hits from across the web. It overlaps Google's results for the same query to varying degrees: sometimes a few sites and other times several. As for the distinctive sites, the comparison between those in Qwant and those in Google is subjective; one person's treasure is another's trash. It is safe to conclude that Qwant does not discover wonderfully informative sites that Google missed entirely (or put on page 10 of its results).

* News covers web news sites, and is, in principle, not unlike Google's News search. There is little overlap with Google's results, but, as previously mentioned, it's difficult to say that one engine's results are markedly better than the other's, given the great redundancy among web news sources.

* Qnowledge Graph is Qwant's pretentious name for a Wikipedia article, which is also prominently featured in most Google web searches.

* Social has up to 30 posts from social media, primarily from Facebook and LinkedIn, with a smattering from Twitter and Myspace. Social media posts are best used in the context of a discussion in a set of related posts, rather than as isolated items. As such, Qwant's Social results have a disjointed effect.

* Shopping returns up to 30 links to retail sites, with a degree of overlap with Google's Shopping results. Although Qwant prides itself on its presentation, Google gets the edge here. Qwant presents its results in a series of textual links, but Google has smaller visual thumbnails, which are generally more useful in a shopping search.

Qwant is similar to a Swiss army knife. In one device, it has several instruments for different kinds of tasks. This device is convenient if it is all you have, but if you are in a well-equipped workshop, you have much better, task-specific tools right at hand. The trouble with Qwant is that the web is a well-equipped workshop, where you do have all sorts of powerful, task-specific tools right at hand. In fact, most searches work better in task-specific search engines, whether they're focused on the web, the news, social media, or shopping. And considering the multitool search approach, a typical Google search itself incorporates the cross-content model, in which the Google search has results from websites, the news, Wikipedia, and ads.

instaGrok's Semantic Engine

instaGrok (instagrok.com) is an example of what's often termed a semantic search engine. That is, it doesn't just provide a set of links for your query; it also strives to represent the different aspects, or subtopics, of your original query. instaGrok does so with a clever, analytical search engine and an appealing visual results display.

instaGrok is the work of a small U.S. development team and was launched in 2012. Its principal market is education, in which it is used as a research and information literacy tool. The word "grok" was coined by science fiction writer Robert Heinlein in his novel Stranger in a Strange Land, and it roughly means "to understand something intuitively." The basic search product is free, but there is a fee-based tier that provides extra functions.

Envision instaGrok as a Tinkertoy construction. Do a Google image search for Tinkertoy and then do an instaGrok search to get the comparison. An instaGrok search performs two functions: First, it identifies a set of webpages that cover your query; second, it analyzes their content to extract subtopics, each with its individual, subtopic-related set of results.

Take, for example, an instaGrok search on evolution. The first-level search results for evolution are arranged into five content types: Key Facts, Websites, Videos, Images, and Concepts.

* Key Facts are short, informative excerpts on the principal points of the topic.

* Websites is a list of topic-relevant websites.

* Videos and Images have topic-related graphic content.

* Concepts is similar to a glossary in that it contains short definitions, which are extracted by the instaGrok algorithm.

In the second level, instaGrok analyzes the original search topic to extract related subtopics. In the example of evolution, instaGrok generates subtopics for "darwin," "mutation," "genetics," and "natural selection," etc. The topic/subtopic relationship is represented by a Tinkertoy-like diagram of nodes and connectors. Each of the nodes has its own set of results, again categorized by Key Facts and Websites, etc. And we're still not done. The branching continues for three more sublevels, each with its own set of results. There is a circular quality to instaGrok, in which the same pieces of content recur through the various subtopics and sub-subtopics.

All of this works better than it sounds from this description. instaGrok does an overall praiseworthy job of identifying relevant web content and then analyzing the topical relationships of your original query. Most of instaGrok's identified sites would be acceptable to its student customers. There are exceptions to this; the semi-credible Wikipedia appears regularly, and individual instructors may object to other instaGrok-found sites. If so, students and instructors can invoke instaGrok's tool for evaluating website credibility and use the experience as a teachable moment. Visually, the Tinkertoy graphics are kinetic, appealing, and intuitive.

Turning to an instaGrok/Google comparison, a typical Google search also gives some conceptual guidance. Autocomplete is one example. Another, found at the bottom of the first page, is "Searches related to --," which provides instaGrok like related topics.

Google-Alts or Not?

Neither Qwant nor instaGrok is a Google-killer (i.e., neither represents the slightest threat to Google's search engine dominance). Are they, more modestly, legitimate Google-alts that occupy a useful, if small, search engine niche?

Qwant's position as a search engine multitool is uncertain. As discussed, it doesn't do the multitool thing well. And anyway, who needs the multitool when you already have a complete set of search engine tools close at hand?

instaGrok wisely aims at niche search engine status in educational markets. There, it offers legitimate added value to Google's general search engine function.

The fact that these two hardworking search engines will remain secondary is, ironically, a tribute to the hard-working Google itself. There are lots of Google-haters, and their position is not without basis. Still, Google has not been complacent with its accomplishments, but has relentlessly continued to bring us new, good stuff. Note to potential Google-alts: We urgently want you to compete, but make sure that you bring your A game.

Qwant and instaGrok

SYNOPSIS

Qwant and instaGrok are search engines that provide alternatives to Google. Qwant simultaneously covers several distinct web content realms-Web, News, and Shopping, etc.-but in attempting to do it all, it doesn't do everything well. instaGrok has a clever algorithm for representing relationships among aspects of a topic. It focuses on educational markets and has potential as a pedagogical tool.

Mick O'Leary is the director of the library at Frederick Community College in Frederick, Md. Send your comments about this column to itletters@infotoday.com.
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Title Annotation:DATABASE REVIEW
Author:O'Leary, Mick
Publication:Information Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2015
Words:1383
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