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Found: A Very Interesting Search

But search was just . . . search. You put in a search term, and you got back a list, you looked at the top two or
I hadn't thought a lot about search engines lately. I mean, I know there's a lot of ferment in the marketplace over search programs -- Google's success has people theorizing that search could replace directory navigation as a way of managing files on a PC, "desktop search is a buzzword for security advocates, "enterprise search" is a business plan for software companies, and so on.

But search was just . . . search. You put in a search term, and you got back a list, you looked at the top two or three hits and if you didn't find what you wanted you started over, right? Lather, rinse, repeat.But a visit last week with François Bourdoncle, cofounder and chief executive officer of Exalead, gave me a lot to think about. Exalead is a French company that is trying to break into the American market, starting with a desktop search product called Exalead one:desktop. You can download a 30day trial from www.exalead.com, and I'd recommend that you do it. Or at least experiment a little with the Web search on the site, which uses the same code base.

What you'll see is a good old three-pane user interface, the kind of UI that's been around at least since cc:Mail. Bourdoncle, whose own experience with search goes back to work on DEC's Alta Vista, has adapted it to the task of helping users get better results from their searches.

Actually, it's sort of a four-pane interface, because you have to count the query box as a separate window, but once you get your search term entered and results back up on the screen the UI provides far more widgets for helping you actually find something than a simple list of hits. You can see thumbnails of the results and open them, with query terms highlighted, in a preview window. You can build a list of temporary bookmarks of pages you like, you can, in effect zoom in and out of your search, widen it, narrow it, take a side road then come back to the highway, put good things away for later.

A search engine is only as good as the database it's searching, and here Exalead has some work to do -- its Web search is steadily increasing the number of pages it indexes, but it's got a ways to go, and the desktop product can't see into every application's files, or even every e-mail application's files, which has the most important file type to cover. But it's interesting to me how that richer user interface and some of the widgets it provides shelf space for like "related terms" and phonetic search, actually do improve my satisfaction with the result.

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