Search Engines with a Soul

SAN FRANCISCO (05/26/2000) - Whoever coined the term search engine got it exactly right. AltaVista Co., Excite Inc., and their rivals do indeed resemble engines: awesomely powerful but decidedly inhuman. Rather than speaking plain English, they comprehend only keywords, ANDs, ORs, NOTs, and punctuation marks.

Misphrase your query, and you may get an avalanche of irrelevant links or no results at all. And even though a few sites let you ask questions in simple English, it's clear that you're talking to a none-too-bright automaton.

But some sites now leverage the unbeatable technology known as the human brain.

And although these features won't replace searching as we know it, they're among the Web's coolest new tools.

Calling On A Community

People-driven searching is showing up both at established sites like Ask Jeeves Inc. (answerpoint.ask.com) and LookSmart Ltd. (live.looksmart.com) and at new contenders such as Abuzz.com. At any of these sites, you can type a question in plain English, designate its category, and post it on a public message board for perusal by other visitors. You'll receive an e-mail alert if and when someone responds.

Why would perfect strangers bother to reply to your question? Mostly because it's fun to share and show off your knowledge. As I asked questions, I found myself pausing to answer others. There are also material rewards for superhelpful participants: LookSmart, for instance, awards ClickMiles that can be accumulated and cashed in for travel and other prizes.

I posted questions at Abuzz, Ask Jeeves, and LookSmart, and within just a few hours I got smart tips about buying a mountain bike online and learned where Grover Cleveland was born (Caldwell, New Jersey). Very impressive. But the sites are not foolproof: Your question could get addressed slowly (or not at all), and some of the answers are inaccurate, frivolous, or downright insulting.

Real People, Right Now

Of course, waiting even an hour or two for an answer sounds mighty tedious compared to the lickety-split response times that you get with traditional search engines. Enter Webhelp.com, which brings while-you-wait service to people-driven Web searches. Once you have asked a question, you're connected to a professional Web surfer, who immediately searches for a Web site that has the information you're after. When the live rep has tracked down pertinent info, the page in question gets displayed in a browser frame for your approval. Once the session is complete, you receive an e-mailed transcript for future reference.

Shaken, Not Stirred

Webhelp's basic service is free, but for 99 cents a question or $10 a month, you can jump to the front of the line and receive the fastest service. I opted for the free version; my search sessions took from 5 to 10 minutes apiece, and I always went away happy. A representative named Hale, for instance, swiftly pointed me toward a recipe for the trendy cocktail known as a Cosmopolitan (1.5 oz. vodka, .75 oz. Cointreau, 1 oz. cranberry juice; shake with ice, strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with a wedge of lime).

Feeling lazy? INetNow.com, another new service, doesn't even make you type queries into your browser. Instead, you dial a toll-free number and chat with a real person, who surfs for answers then and there. I found the reps prompt, genial, and accurate, whether I was checking Mark McGwire's stats or tracking down a neighborhood Mongolian restaurant.

At press time, INetNow.com planned to give new users a free trial but to charge for ongoing access, starting at $20 a month. It might be worth the bucks if you plan to take advantage of INetNow.com's full complement of services: The phone representatives will give you stock quotes, shop on your behalf, tend to your calendar, and even read your e-mail to you.

I'm intrigued, for sure--but not quite ready to entrust the people at INetNow with my e-mail password. Moreover, some of us may prefer to query an emotionless, nonjudgmental search site such as Yahoo. Hey, I know I'd be too sheepish to seek human help if I were trolling the Web for, say, information on baldness cures or photos of Catherine Zeta-Jones (not that I am, mind you).

Come to think of it, what makes many Web searches so rewarding are the random, unexpected detours that you take along the way. Such semi-aimless Internet wanderings would quickly shatter the patience of the good folks at Webhelp and INetNow, no doubt--but I've never heard a traditional search engine whine, "Are you done yet?"

Contact PC World Senior Editor Harry McCracken at websavvy@pcworld.com.

FYI

According to a new survey, typical Internet users will spend 1 million minutes--almost two years of their lives--online. (Let's hope it's not all at once.)Source: Cyber DialogueOn the Net...

Better Free Voice Mail: Many Web sites offer free voice-mail services, but EVoice (www.evoice.com) is the first I've seen that answers the phone line you've already got when you're unavailable. The catch: You must listen to a brief ad before you can retrieve messages by phone. You can avoid these audio ads, however, by checking your messages on the Web... Try Before You Buy: Visit a nifty new site called Runaware (www.runaware.com), and you can test-drive software applications right in your Web browser--no downloads required. At press time, the only major Windows packages available were a few Corel products, but more may be up by the time you read this... PointCast Signs Off:

Remember PointCast? Once among the Web's hottest offerings, the news-and-ads screen-saver service was quietly discontinued in late March. Its successor--EntryPoint (www.entrypoint.com)--crams news, a stock ticker, searching, and even MP3 playback into a trim toolbar. It's worth a gander.

Gimme Five

Sites for Bargain Hunters

Cheapskates rejoice! The Web is bursting at the seams with free-stuff offers.

These sites are dedicated to finding them; most also round up other bargain options, such as online coupons.

1. Nojunkfree.com: This admirably choosy site sorts free stuff (samples, trial offers, and more) by quality level--ignoring offers it deems unworthy of your attention.

2. FreeShop.com: A gargantuan collection of freebies and discounts, both on and off the Web; altogether more than 1000 neatly categorized items.

3. About.com's Free Stuff (freebies.about.com): The usual roundup of offers--new items listed daily--plus news, a message forum, and a freebie FAQ.

4. Top20 Free (www.top20free.com): A toteboard of free-stuff sites of all sorts--not just 20, as the name implies, but more than 200 contenders.

5. Hotdealfinder.com: Plentiful links to big-discount online coupons reward visitors who tolerate this site's downright ugly look and feel. (A makeover, in the works at press time, may spiff up its looks.)

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