The search engines you'll need for every type of question | Popular Science
Want More?

The search engines you'll need for every type of question

Specific answers for specific needs.

Google

Google isn't the only search engine out there.

Photo Mix via Pexels

When most of us have a question we want to research online, we run to Google for the answer. But it's not the only search engine out there. Venture off the beaten path, and you can find more specialized sites—like the self-proclaimed "computational search engine" Wolfram Alpha or the privacy-conscious DuckDuckGo—that will help you track down exactly what you're looking for. While the well-trained algorithms of Google or even Bing might be the best choice in some situations, to find what you're seeking more quickly, it helps to know which search engine is best for which task.

General interest, personal updates, and games: Google

Let's go ahead and talk about the elephant in the article: When it comes to general searches, Google crushes the competition. It has an extremely well-trained algorithm and offers the largest index of pages—a search for "Mars planet," for example, brings up 5.7 million Google results as opposed to 99,800 Bing ones. That means this search behemoth is still more likely to turn up an obscure blog post, forum message, or online document than any of its rivals, which makes it ideal for researching computer error messages or specialized scientific topics.

On top of its general-interest search chops, Google is great for looking up highly specialized information...about you. Because the search engine ties in with its other services, such as Gmail and Google Photos, it can pull up your personal data while you're signed into your account. Search for "my flights" or "my trips," and Google will pull details from your booking confirmation emails. On a less fun note, type in "my bills," and Google will sort through your email reminders, using them to show you any upcoming payments you need to make. As for images, try looking up "my photos of Sydney" (replacing the Australian city with your latest vacation destination), or search for photos based on time and date with "my photos from last week or "my photos from July 2014."

Finally, Google makes a great search engine if you're searching for a distraction—specifically a browser-based game. For example, look up "Atari Breakout," switch to the Images tab, and use the cursor keys to control the ensuing action. Similarly, try entering "solitaire," "pac-man," or "tic tac toe" to bring up basic versions of those titles. In addition to games, Google incorporates apps that do serve a purpose: Type "flip a coin" or "roll a die" to do just that, or input "stopwatch," "timer," or "calculator" to display the relevant utilities on screen. Then operate these mini apps right from their Google results pages.

Images and videos: Bing

Although Bing aims to compete with Google in general search results, one of its real advantages lies in its image and video search abilities. On these results pages, Bing has more filtering options, a better display interface, and excellent suggestions for related searches.

When you're hunting for a video, the results page displays clips in a well-formatted grid rather than a list, making it easier to quickly browse through thumbnails. Bing also triggers an auto-preview feature whenever you hover the mouse cursor over a clip.

As for images, Bing provides extra methods for filtering your results, methods that Google doesn't offer. For example, if you're looking for a particular person, you can focus on only pictures that show faces. It also lets you apply a larger set of image-rights filters.

Images that are free to reuse: Flickr

While Bing lets you filter images based on their rights—how non-owners are allowed to use them—it can't beat the free-image search power of Flickr. Specifically, you can limit your image search to images that photographers have released under Creative Commons licenses, which allow you to repost their work for free, albeit with certain restrictions.

To get started, enter what you're looking for—let's say "cats" for this example—and click Search. Right away, you can adjust the order in which pictures appear by clicking the Relevant drop-down list on the right: Flickr lets you sort pictures by relevance, date, or the "interesting" filter, which elevates pictures that have drawn more activity, such as comments, views, and likes. You can further narrow down your options by color, depth of field, or pattern.

Even once you've limited your list to images you like, not all of them will be free to use. However, images released under Creative Commons often are, although the exact rules governing their use do depend on the specific type of CC license. To see the license under which an image has been released, click the copyright symbol on the lower-right of its photo page. And to filter by license, click the Any license drop-down menu on the left of the search page and limit your results to images released under Creative Commons.

Science and media data: Wolfram Alpha

Wolfram Alpha focuses on answering more technical science and math queries. For example, you can balance a chemical equation with a search like "Al + O2 -> Al2O3," look up properties of compounds with "flash point methane, butane, octane," and answer earth science questions like "seismic travel times from San Francisco to Las Vegas." It's equally adept with math equations: Try "circle, diameter=2," to find the properties of that shape, or test out a more complicated figure like "annulus, inner radius=2, outer radius=5." Draw graphs from "plot sin x cos y" to "plot 3x2-2xy+y2=1" and fill out sequences by typing the first few figures: "1, 2, 4, 8, ..."

But while Wolfram Alpha started with math, it has expanded its scope to provide data on literature, music, movie, and TV shows. Hit it with queries like "how many words in Hamlet?" to answer all your technical questions. You can also compare two items, such as "Hamlet vs Macbeth," to see how their publication dates, lengths, number of characters mentioned, and other data stack up. You can also compare stats about movies and TV shows in a similar way. Even natural language searches—such as "movies starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro" or "movies with the longest running time"—are fair game.

Of course, the computational search engine manages to add technical information to the mix: Run a query like "first episode of Friends," and Wolfram Alpha will tell you not only when that episode aired, but also how many days ago that date fell and what its sunrise and sunset times were.

Wolfram Alpha

See if Wolfram Alpha can solve your science, math, and media problems.

Wolfram Alpha

Job listings: LinkedIn

Don't neglect the search engines built into the sites you visit every day—these will often lead you to information that's only accessible to users who have signed into the site. In other words, a public search from Google or Bing won't be able to scrape this data.

LinkedIn makes a good example. Next time you go job hunting, start your search by signing into your account. Then click on the search box at the top of the page and choose Jobs. Hit All filters to see all the ways you can limit your results, including by experience level and industry. Limit them further by entering a job title and location in the fields at the top. Finally, click Search, and you're on your way.

Looking for potential new connections on LinkedIn is just as straightforward. Click in the box at the top, choose People, and click All filters. Now you can browse by name, title, location, company, industry, and more. Review the tick boxes on the right to filter for people you know directly (click 1st) or people connected to your existing contacts (click 2nd or 3rd+).

Private questions: DuckDuckGo

There's one big problem with search engines: The companies behind them keep track of what you're looking for. If you'd prefer to keep your browsing history private, then you need DuckDuckGo. It doesn't keep records of your searches, won't feed you personalized results, and refuses to provide fodder for targeted ads. DuckDuckGo also preserves your privacy as you browse elsewhere—so a search for "smartphones" won't cause an endless series of phone advertisements to begin appearing as you bounce around other sites. It's almost as if you never ran that search.

Beyond its focus on privacy, DuckDuckGo acts as a fast and comprehensive search engine, letting you hunt for images and videos as well as websites. It also enables you to restrict results by country or by publication date. Finally, you can search individual sites through the DuckDuckGo interface using a tool it calls Bangs: Try entering "!amazon shoes" or "!wikipedia apollo missions" into the search bar to see how they work.

There are two types of searches that really benefit from DuckDuckGo's enhanced privacy. First, there's the secret inquiries that you really don't want Google keeping track of (particularly if you share a computer with others). When you decide to look up that weird rash that you don't want anyone to know about, do it on DuckDuckGo. Second, you should use the privacy-conscious search if you're searching for a product but don't want to receive ads about it for the rest of your life.

Latest News