Search Engine Watch 2003 Award Winners, Part 1

Coauthor: Chris Sherman

ClickZ’s sister site, Search Engine Watch, released its annual list of outstanding Web search services for 2003. Your favorites are among them, but there were also surprises and controversial predictions for the coming year.


In early January, Search Engine Watch members were invited to nominate search engines in various categories. Members could choose from lists the editors provided or suggest new services.

In late January, subscribers were sent an email allowing them to vote in the final round. Each person could vote once, using a unique URL. Editors Danny Sullivan and Chris Sherman determined the final award winners. Selections were influenced by votes, though the final decisions doesn’t always reflect the voting.

In most categories, people could name both a winner and a second-place choice. In our summaries, we often refer to how the voting went for the “winner” of a category versus the “second-place” vote.

Yes, this makes things confusing. However, we found by letting people make two choices, it’s easier to see the strengths of some second-tier services that might otherwise get drowned out.

The outstanding Web search services of 2003.

Outstanding Search Service

Outstanding performance in helping Internet users locate general information from across the World Wide Web.

Winner: Google

Let’s deal with the negative first. We don’t feel Google’s results are as great as they have been in past. We can’t back this up with statistics. Despite a call for industry-agreed relevancy testing over a year ago, the search engines have taken no action.

Instead, our sense of Google being not as good as in the past comes from personal experiences and anecdotes from others. Almost unthinkable in the past, we occasionally find Google doesn’t find what we’re looking for today. And more often, we may try a Google alternative to locate information.

Onward to the positive (and an incredible positive it is). Google remains the top choice for anyone who wishes to start a Web search quest. Much more often than not, it continues to help you find what you’re looking for.

The service has maintained the consistency of its search interface, a relief when competitors seem to constantly redesign. It’s also maintained a generally high quality of results, making it the benchmark to which competitors aspire.

In the popular vote, Google won 70 percent of the 834 votes cast for a winner in the category, far outdistancing others. This despite much outcry late last year by some marketers who lost free listings on Google due to a major algorithm change and who claim the change reduced Google’s relevancy.

We received 50 comments in association with Google votes. A sampling:

  • You can’t beat the speed and relevance of Google.
  • Still the best, but recent Google updates have put businesses in peril. This may sway users to choose another engine over time. Results are also not as accurate as before.
  • I used to LOVE Google and overall, they are the best. HOWEVER — I am not impressed with my results since they had to remove that algorithm due to the patent issue. I cannot stand that when I’m searching for products, none show up except ads.
  • I only use Google. The results are better and more applicable, without so much fluff!
  • I have had only one choice for two years. Even with the Florida update stupidity, nobody compares or even comes close in relevance, reach, usability, honesty (sponsor ads not mixed in results, clearly labeled).
  • I have two pages which are the best and the most important in their respective niches, and Google alone consistently places them top for the relevant search terms.
  • I have been using Google since it was in beta test, and it continues to amaze me with its accuracy, features, clean look, and overall usefulness. I have been a university reference librarian for over 30 years and NOTHING works better in the area of electronic resources than Google. Sergey and Larry deserve the Nobel Prize in something for doing so much for humanity.
  • Google’s still my number one, but its response time seems to have increased this past year. If I think it’s getting too sluggish, I’ll start using AlltheWeb more, and Teoma’s an up-and-comer.
  • Google just does it again. K.I.S.S. Keeps it simple, stupid, plus always looking for new ways, new features. I love that about them. They never lose touch with their customers.
  • Google is getting overrun with people optimizing, so results aren’t as good lately.
  • No portal rubbish; straight to search. AdWords can sometimes provide exactly the right results but are kept clearly separate.
  • Google still indexes new pages faster than any other search engine.
  • Despite complaints from high-pressure marketers, Google’s improvements are much needed by those who are honest and don’t try their fancy tricks to get their spam listed.

We agree. For the fourth year in a row, Google deserves to be named Outstanding Search Service.

Second Place: AlltheWeb and Yahoo

Popular voting for winner in this category tied AlltheWeb and Yahoo Both earned 6 percent of the 834 votes for a winner, placing them second after Google.

We asked people to vote directly for a second-place winner. Again a tie. Both AlltheWeb and Yahoo garnered 21 percent of the 664 “second place” votes, well ahead of Google’s 15 percent.

We agree both services deserve the second-place award.

AlltheWeb provides very relevant, fresh, and comprehensive results. New features added in early 2003, such the URL Investigator (the Best Search Feature), a clean redesign, and an enhanced advanced search page are all appreciated. We continue to love customization and skinning options.

Why not make AlltheWeb a winner alongside Google, as we considered last year? Its future is in doubt. Bought by Overture last year, AlltheWeb then gained Yahoo as an owner, after Yahoo bought Overture. Now the least known of Yahoo’s three public search sites (AltaVista and Yahoo itself are the others), we fear AlltheWeb may be abandoned.

We haven’t seen much new development since the Overture purchase, other than an index expansion. Web search remains great, but Google is advancing in new areas, developing its shopping search engine and starting local search. While we love AlltheWeb and recommend it as a great second — or indeed, a great first-choice search engine — it may not grow or even be around long term.

Eight comments were received, most of which indicated use of AlltheWeb because of dissatisfaction with Google:

  • Google is getting too pushy with AdWords and placing unwanted ads all over the Internet. I don’t trust them anymore, and I still have to drill down through all their picks to find relevant information.
  • Google has failed dismally in the last three months, prior to which they were the runaway winner. Not now, though!
  • Google has lost the edge.
  • AlltheWeb does a solid job with less spam than Google. Nice layout/skin features. AlltheWeb brings the fairest results.

Yahoo made huge strides over the past year. The company rediscovered search as an important feature for users and hopes to bring them back through “The New Yahoo Search” campaign.

At its core, Yahoo remains Google. Despite purchasing Inktomi over a year ago, it’s repackaged Google results that most users get when searching. That makes Yahoo very relevant but not necessarily unique.

Inktomi results, which also have a good reputation for relevancy, should appear on Yahoo by the end of March. They’ll shore up the work we’ve found most impressive, Yahoo’s featuring of a variety of specialized searches. Yellow page results, image results, shopping search results, news listings, and Yahoo’s human-compiled Web site reviews are all easily accessible via tabs, in addition to Web searching.

We also like the invisible tabs work Yahoo’s experimenting with, which bring to light other search options searches may miss due to tab blindness. Search Shortcuts, as Yahoo calls them, bring easy access to maps, weather, news, and other information. Overture Labs, just rebranded as Yahoo Labs, is also a sign Yahoo is looking to advance search technology over the long haul, as Google Labs has experimented publicly with search technology since 2002.

Below, a sampling of the five comments from voters who favored Yahoo:

  • Yahoo results are much better today than Google’s.
  • Surrounds Google’s results with terrific value-added features.
  • Google is full of spam (search for anything related to home improvement, and you’ll know what I mean)! At least when I use Yahoo I get a layer of directory-style results.

Honorable Mention: Ask Jeeves

Only 1 percent of the vote went to Ask Jeeves, putting it well behind MSN, AltaVista, and even Ask Jeeves-owned Teoma, all of which gained 3 percent. But it’s Ask Jeeves we singled out for an honorable mention because of changes over the past year.

In particular, Ask Jeeves is doing innovative things with invisible tabs and with what it calls Smart Search. We think the future of search will be this much smarter approach to delivering up more than just Web pages. Ask Jeeves makes a promising start that deserves attention.

Teoma, while not given an honorable mention, deserves a try by anyone more “advanced” with search or who wants an alternative to Google’s core Web search results. The quality and comprehensiveness of Teoma’s Web results continues to grow.

Meet Danny and Chris at Search Engine Strategies in New York, March 1-4.

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