25 November 2006

#7. Search Beyond Google

Welcome to this Internet edition of my Tool Bar & Grill, where it’s all Web, all the time. In this edition, I reveal some fascinating facts, surprising statistics, and helpful hints about Web searching.

Metasearch Engines

Most of us turn to Google by habit whenever we want to find something on the Internet – so much so that “Google” has become a synonym for “search.” But by doing so, we might be missing a lot of good information.

Since I made Copernic my default search engine a few months ago, I have seen repeated confirmation of this startling fact. Copernic is a metasearch engine, that is, one that searches through other search engines. It returns results from Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask Jeeves, and many other general and specialized search engines. Next to each result, Copernic names the search engines that provided it. The number of relevant hits that do not come from Google is shocking.

Research by Jux2, another metasearch site, shows that only fewer than four of the top ten search results in the Google, Yahoo, MSN, and Ask Jeeves search engines overlap. This means, for instance, that only three or four of Google’s top ten will also turn up in the first ten hits in a Yahoo search. The overlap is even lower when comparing three or four search engines to each other.

Check the example below. It shows seven results featuring my name (what? you thought I’d search on your name?) in Copernic, with no overlap at all. The three from www.elephant.org.il were returned separately by MSN, Google, and Yahoo. Two others from www.airset.com came from Google and Yahoo respectively. And the other two, from two different sites, came from MSN and Yahoo separately.

By contrast, the results shown below were each returned by two search engines and not others:

Copernic is not the only metasearch engine. I’ve also tried the Google-style Dogpile and Info, as well as the above-mentioned Jux2 – and there are many more. (All sites mentioned here end in .com.)

Yet even these search aggregators are not perfect. Strangely, most of them failed to turn up other references to my name, such as my long-ago contributions to The New York Times. Exalead found one of these, but failed to find some of the links that Copernic did. Exalead shows thumbnail previews of the result pages, which you can click through to the actual page while remaining in the Exalead frame. This should reduce the number of irrelevant pages you open before finding the desired information.

You can use these metasearch engines from their home pages on the Web. Some, including Copernic, also offer tool bars that plug in to popular browsers. Firefox and IE 7 users can add them to their search engine lists, so they’re always available without added tool bars.

Other Search Approaches

Some alternative metasearch approaches include Clusty (formerly Vivisimo) and Izito, which show result “clusters” as well as individual hits. Kartoo takes a pictorial approach, displaying metasearch results and their connections as a graphical map. It looks cool, and helps you visualize the relationships among the hits, but the hit descriptions are shorter and less useful than in other metasearch engines.

Snap and Ixquick are not real metasearch engines, but you might like them. Snap displays a large, readable preview of any listed Web page hit that you click. You can open a previewed page in the same window or in a new one. You also can rank the hits; Snap learns from your ratings to give better results next time. However, it relies primarily on only the Ask search engine. Similarly, Ixquick learns from your ratings of hits, and also ranks hits by the number of engines turning them up in their top 10. However, Ixquick apparently does not search through Google.

There is a whole universe of Web search beyond Google. Try some of these metasearch engines, and keep using the ones that suit you best. You have nothing to lose, and possibly much to gain.

New Music Discovery

And now for something completely different: For a charming, low-key hybrid of country, folk, and pop music, try out Distant Music by Adam Klein, scion of Athens, Georgia’s seminal alternative music scene. This debut acoustic album provides either thought-provoking introspection or pleasant listening, depending on your mood. You can read about the music and the artist and download a few songs for free at www.adam-klein.com. Or you can buy the album or some songs at iTunes, emusic, Rhapsody, Napster, www.athensmusic.net, and other sites. Full disclosure: Adam Klein is my nephew – but the music’s great regardless.

Thank you for your attention. Please send me your comments and suggestions. And peek back here on December 10 for more helpful hints.

This column first appeared at http://www.elephant.org.il/jonathans_tool_bar_grill.

10 November 2006

#6. EULAppreciate This: Help with Required Reading, and Flame Retardant

Welcome back to my Tool Bar & Grill, where I bring you useful new Windows utilities or Web sites twice each month.

EULAlyzer Reads the Fine Print

When I get new software, I’m dying to find out what it can do for me, so I want to install and run it ASAP. Who wants to take time to read the interminable legalese of the end user license agreement (EULA) that stands in the way of setting up new software? But later, when you complain that your computer is swarming with spyware, adware, and spam, the publisher retorts that you agreed to it all in the EULA.

Here’s a new weapon against malware: EULAlyzer, a clever little utility that reads a EULA and flags suspicious words and phrases “of interest.” When you’re about to install new software, just launch EULAlyzer, select Scan New License Agreement, and drag the big plus sign over the EULA before agreeing to it. (Copy and paste license agreements on Web sites into EULAlyzer.)

When you click Analyze, EULAlyzer searches the EULA for such give-away phrases as “third party," ”without notice,” “advertising,” and “promotional,” as well as Web site addresses. It ranks the EULA by the number and severity of such danger signs, and lists them all.

Click the arrow under Goto to see the suspicious phrase in context in the EULA.

Now you can install new software with greater confidence, even if you don’t wade through the license agreement word by word. However, I still recommend reading the EULAs of suspect programs, in addition to relying on EULAlyzer. It might be imperfect, and malware authors might get wise to EULAlyzer and change their terminology to duck under its radar.

EULAlyzer is free, and there’s also a paid version with greater capabilities. You can download EULAlyzer from the publisher, Javacool Software (who also publish SpywareBlaster), at http://www.javacoolsoftware.com/eulalyzer.html. As always, I encourage you to donate money to reward the authors and support their ongoing activities.

Another useful tool is EULAscan, a social networked site (http://www.eulascan.com) where users review and warn about EULAs. Enter the name of a product to see if its EULA has been evaluated, and even post your own critique.

Comodo (the Firewall, Not the Dragon)

If you use the Internet, you need a firewall for protection against hackers and malicious software. If you have your own router and hardware firewall, you’re covered. If you don’t, and you’re using Windows XP’s built-in firewall, you’re still half naked. So which of the many commercial, shareware, and freeware offerings should you choose? I’ll let those of you who didn’t read the heading squirm with suspense.

Symantec (Norton), McAfee, ZoneAlarm, and many other well-known publishers sell comprehensive internet security suites as well as single-purpose firewalls. They would be well worth the price if there were no cheaper alternatives. And isn’t that what you read my Tool Bar & Grill for?

There are many fine free firewalls. Rather than list or review all the better ones, though, I’ll cut right to the chase. Probably the best free firewall – according to many reviews, the equal of the best commercial ones – is Comodo (http://www.comodogroup.com). PC magazine made it the Editor’s Choice among free firewalls, well ahead of the better-known ZoneAlarm.

Comodo can automatically set itself up to deal with many common applications on your computer. When it does encounter a new request, its pop-up messages are clear and informative. It is highly configurable by those who know what they’re doing, and you can create complex custom rules. Most important of all, it’s very effective and secure, passing the experts’ tests with flying colors.

As with any firewall, Comodo has a learning curve. At first, it might bombard you with questions about which programs to allow access to the Internet or to your computer. But I would be suspicious of any firewall that didn’t do that. I’ve been using Comodo for a number of months, and am very pleased with its performance. It’s not a resource hog, either.

You might be confused initially by the Comodo Launchpad that opens when you click Comodo’s tray icon, but you'll get used to it. You have to go through the Launchpad to get into the firewall. The Launchpad centralizes control of all the Comodo software you install. Comodo also offers free antivirus, antispam, antiphishing, backup, and password management programs. (I have not used any of them, so I cannot recommend them.)

Here’s a tip I learned about the hard way (the only way I ever learn): If you’ve been using ZoneAlarm, it’s not enough to just disable it when you start using Comodo (or, perhaps, any other firewall). You must uninstall ZoneAlarm completely; I was unable to get on the Internet until I did.

Thanks for reading! Please post comments and suggestions below. And don’t forget to come back on November 25 for another interesting review.

This column first appeared at http://www.elephant.org.il/jonathans_tool_bar_grill.