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7/1/2005
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Hot Apps: Free Web Site Search

You want to give your Web site visitors the ease and convenience of searching your site's contents, but you're worried about the cost. Worry no more.

You've got a Web site and you want to let visitors search its contents, just like they can when they visit the big-deal corporate sites. But you don't have a big-deal corporate budget. Not to worry. Does free work for you? You can add a third-party search engine to your site for a total cost of zero. The visitors who use it will see some ads, but all you have to do is add some HTML code to your site, and wait for the search provider to spider your site.

I've used three search engines for my Web site that have proven their worth, Atomz.com, PicoSearch, and FreeFind. I'd like to choose a clear winner. But the contenders are so close in capabilities that I can't.

All three of these services provides fast, hassle-free searching of your Web site. They make the process as simple as pasting a trivial amount of HTML code wherever you want on your Web site. All of them let you format the look and feel of their code to blend with yours. Each lets you fine-tune the way their search engine behaves. Each of them reports on the results of user searches on your site. And, if you're willing to pay, each lets you suppress the ads that the search engines display along with a visitor's search results. Finally, all three of these services have stood the test of time by surviving and growing for at least eight years -- nearly a lifetime in Internet terms.

One way to choose among the three services for yourself is try all three and see which works best for you. Subscribe to all three and set up a temporary Web page on your site with links to they search engines, then have several friends search for what they want on your site with each tool, and compare the reported results. You're probably too close to the content of your site to enter enough "nave" search terms. The results of a few friends who are more typical of visitors to your site will surprise you!

Although the idea is a little unusual, you may want to offer your site visitors more than one search engine. This protects your site if one search engine is offline for a while or slows to a crawl. And you can let the search engines do what they do best: When visitors to my main site click to search, they're taken to a search page that permits use of either Atomz.com for the most intuitive results or PicoSearch to enter more advanced search criteria.

Before you rush to add a search textbox to your Web site just because it's cool and free, let me offer a word of caution. Based on years of looking at the reported search requests of visitors to sites I've worked with, I'm amazed at how inappropriate many of those requests are. Consider your needs.

For example, I'm Webmeister of a small Web site for a client. The site is only 50-plus pages, it doesn't have deep, multilevel links, and the design makes navigating the site easy. At least for now, I've discouraged my client from adding a search engine. It would lead to a lot of false negatives for poorly chosen search terms and, meanwhile, take more time than just clicking one or two hyperlinks to find the desired information.

Meanwhile, my personal main Web site is complex after sprouting in all sorts of directions over the years. Though it contains only about twice the number of pages as the mentioned client site and its hierarchy is reasonably well designed, even I occasionally have to use my site's search engine to find some of its content!

Atomz.com
Price: Free
www.atomz.com

PicoSearch
Price: Free
www.picosearch

FreeFind
Price: Free
www.freefind.com

J.W. Olsen has been a full-time technology author, columnist, editor, and freelance book project manager with more than 1000 editorial credits since 1990, and has provided computer, Web site, and editorial services to other clients since 1985. He welcomes feedback via the response form at www.jwolsen.com.

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