When you're desperately seeking better results

If full-blown search engines often confront and confound you with productivity-stifling clickfests, consider augmenting these resarch tools with a more constrained approach. Hereare two I've tried: Atomica's Gurunet and Microsoft'sOffice System 2003 S

We have all come to rely on search engines to find the bits and pieces of data not quite at your fingertips. Search engines like Google, Teoma, Alltheweb, HotBot and AltaVista weed through billions of Web pages to produce relevant results. If search engines are too general or not comprehensive enough, metasearch engines hunt across multiple search engines or drill down into specialty databases available for almost any topic.

Full-blown search engines and comprehensive metasearch are obviously essential tools for research tasks, but in many instances they are overkill. You don't necessarily need to get results from a pool of millions of sources. While most metasearch engines allow you to set search parameters, including the target engines, sites and databases, you still end up with a clickfest, sorting through a lengthy list of results. In many cases, a more restrained approach to search would suffice, and without sacrificing much breadth and depth.

Atomica Corp.'s GuruNet is an example of a search tool that minimizes the clicks required to get at information. The software was around for a while during the dotcom heydays and just resurfaced in a new, improved version.

GuruNet is not a substitute for a Google, but a complementary reference tool. Whereas Google brings the entire world to your fingertips, GuruNet gives you a convenient snapshot of the world. Unlike search engines that scour billions of pages on the Internet, GuruNet utilizes a limited set of data sources. The nearly 50 data sources range from Houghton-Mifflin's American Heritage Dictionary and Acronym Finder to MedicineNet and the Computer Desktop Encyclopedia. It also intelligently brings in results from popular search engines if the prescribed data sources don't provide an adequate result.

Query responses, which are typically answers rather than hyperlinks to a Web site, are activated by alt-clicking on any word in any Windows application. The software aggregates information triggered by the word, and presents the results in a pop-up window with tabs for the relevant data sources (view the screen image). GuruNet requires a download (1.3M), and costs pennies a day ($34.99). I did experience occasional Javascript errors when accessing Web pages, but nothing that prevented access to the information.

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According to Atomica CEO Bob Rosenschein, the company will have a version later this year that allows corporations to plug-in their own XML-based, reference-oriented data. A Web-based version is also in development.

Directed search has also been making its way into Microsoft's Office product family in the form of Smart Tags, which associate information and actions with data. If you enter a stock symbol in Office XP Excel, for example, the stock quote and related information (from MSN) are automatically surfaced as drill down options. The Smart Tags often redirect users to Microsoft's own Web properties and created a stir a few years ago when the company was going to make the technology integral to Windows XP.

Reader Resources
GuruNet 4.0
ZDNet Downloads

Microsoft is expanding the capabilities of it Smart Tags feature in Office System 2003, which is now available in beta release. It doesn't yet offer the broad array of information resources or simple user interface of GuruNet, but it's fully integrated within the application suite.

From within the Research task pane in the Microsoft Word 2003 beta, for instance, you can access the Encarta Dictionary or Encyclopedia, Factiva news search, Gale company profiles, among other information services. According to a Microsoft spokesperson, organizations can provide their internal data through the Research task pane, and internal databases that are XML-enabled can easily be modified to provide data directly to users within Office documents using Smart Tags technology. Users can also invoke contextually relevant actions on data through the Research task pane, such as displaying inventory data in a specific table format in Excel.

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The XML and Web services advances in Office 2003 also offer any information provider a way deliver content within various Microsoft applications supporting Smart Tags. Having the option to choose data sources that are most relevant to you-rather than what Microsoft offers out of the box-will bring a new level of personalization and convenience to the Office experience.

Let's hope that either Microsoft or an enterprising individual or company creates a comprehensive directory of data sources that can be accessed via Smart Tags technology and the Research task pane, as well as the capability to save groups of data sources that could apply to different tasks. Better yet, a Web service beyond what GuruNet or Office 2003 offer that allows any application on any platform to integrate Smart Tags-like functionality

Share your opinion about search engines and search tools like GuruNet and Smart Tags. Leave a message in our TalkBack forum or e-mail me at dan.farber@cnet.com.