After three months of development and much online hype, Wolfram Alpha, a search engine conceived by mathematician and physicist Stephen Wolfram, will launch early next week. After a pre-release demonstration of the service at Harvard Law School in late April, many pundits have already dubbed Wolfram Alpha the next “Google-killer”. Stephen Wolfram would do well to be wary.
On 31 March, in a brief entry on his blog, founder Jimmy Wales announced that he was shutting down his own crowd-sourced search engine project called Wikia Search. It was a rare setback for the founder of the popular online open encyclopedia, Wikipedia. When launched in January 2008, Wikia Search was touted as yet another Google-killer—the latest in a clutch of Internet search engines that were supposed to somehow unseat Google from Internet search-engine supremacy. Wikia Search’s “big idea” was to replicate Wikipedia’s secret—it would let users modify and re-prioritize search results to reflect real-world relevance. When enough users got on board, Wikia Search would hopefully deliver results more accurate than Google’s much-touted computer algorithms.
Like many so-called Google-killers before it, Wikia Search tried, and eventually failed, to beat the San Francisco-based company at the search game. Ever since it launched as a student project at Stanford University and then spun off as an independent company in 1998, Google has increasingly established a monopoly on Internet search. Most estimates put Google’s current share of the global search market at 60-75%. Over the last decade, several search start-ups have tried to upstage Google.com, only to flare out when initial interest died. Along with Wikia, we profile a decade’s worth of select Google-killers, all of whom fell victim to the leader’s superlative popularity and search algorithms. Meanwhile we await Wolfram Alpha eagerly.
1. Alltheweb 1999
Alltheweb was based on Tor Egge’s doctoral thesis at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. The site went online in 1999, and by 2002, it could boast of an even bigger website directory than Google. The engine also has a number of additional features, including clustering and customizable themes. But it never achieved significant popularity. After a number of mergers, it is now part of Yahoo.
2. Teoma 1999
Teoma used a different algorithm than Google that not only looked at how popular an Internet page was, but also the relevance of the content. Let down by a poor index of websites, the site was eventually acquired by rival search engine Ask Jeeves on 11 September 2001. The brand was finally discontinued in 2006.
3. WiseNut 2001
Launched in September 2001, WiseNut was immediately heralded as a challenge to Google. It had a sizeable database and received good reviews for automatic categorization of search results. Despite positive reviews, WiseNut struggled for a few months before it was bought out by LookSmart. A redesign and relaunch did not work, and WiseNut shut shop in September 2007.
4. Quaero 2005
Quaero was announced as a joint Franco-German project and as a viable challenge to Google’s domination. Eventually the Germans quit and now the project is an exclusive French endeavour. But with just government funding to use against Google’s massive research and development might, no one is holding their breath. Quaero was a blip on the radar in 2006 after then French president Jacques Chirac mentioned it in a couple of speeches. That moment passed quickly, the project continues, and Google remains king.
5. Wikia Search 2006
Jimmy Wales first spoke of a open-sourced competitor to Google in late 2006. Initially called Wikiasari, it would eventually be labelled Wikia Search and launch in 2008. The rest, as we have already mentioned, is history. Or lack thereof.
6. Exalead 2006
When the engine was launched in 2006, as a by-product of the Quaero initiative, founder François Bourdoncle said he would like to kill a Google or two. The search engine began with a blast and Bourdoncle proudly stated that the engine had already indexed at least eight billion websites. However, nothing much seems to have changed since then. Exalead, meanwhile, seems to have moved on to catering to corporate clients.
7. Powerset 2008
Microsoft’s next big salvo in the search engine wars could be powered by its July acquisition of Powerset, a natural language search engine where users simply type in questions. Powerset grabbed headlines last year when it let browsers test it by searching through Wikipedia content. Rumour has it that Microsoft’s new Kumo search engine could have Powerset technology in it.
8. Cuil 2008
Cuil, pronounced “cool”, made its debut in July to unprecedented media hoopla. Unfortunately for Cuil, the launch was an unmitigated disaster. The engine was slow, the results were poor and errors aplenty. And some searches unwittingly threw up completely unrelated pornographic images. Dave Burdick famously said in The Huffington Post blogpost: “This search engine is stupid.”