Tiny Search Engines Try to Find Their Place

Steve Mansfield operates his own Internet search engine from a place he calls a "secret hideout" -- a small office surrounded by low-rent apartments on the outskirts of Lexington, Ky., a college town known for its horse farms.

Mansfield conceived Prefound.com a few years ago on the premise that humans, from pretty much anywhere, can collectively provide better intelligence than a computer program developed out of the Silicon Valley.

Other startups, too, have had similar visions for "social search." Today, even large competitors like Yahoo and Google are pursuing the concept, hoping it'll help make search results more meaningful and thus expand the companies' market share.

Traditional search results are largely based on objective criteria such as counting the number of links other sites have placed to a given Web page. Social search gives people subjective answers -- the best sushi restaurant in Chicago or the best Web site for information about French impressionism -- not necessarily the site visited the most.

"You're essentially breaking up a problem and sending it out to a huge number of people for a query, getting answers back," said Steven Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "It kind of ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. Other people are going to make associations and connections to information you probably would not have made."

At Prefound, launched earlier this year, users contribute to the knowledge pool by submitting clusters of sites they believe would appeal to like-minded people. As an incentive, the largest contributors even get a share of Prefound's advertising money.

A visitor looking for information on, say, New Jersey beaches, can get the user-recommended sites, grouped by users. One user's cluster gives you restaurants, Internet cafes and other information on the coastal town of Ventnor City, N.J. Results are better when more people contribute sites.

Jones said it's too early to know whether social search will dramatically change the way people look for information on the Internet, but it's already changing the way traditional search companies do business.

News source: Tech News world

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