The finer points of searches

Searching is all the rage right now, with pitched battles among Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc.

Searching is all the rage right now, with pitched battles among Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc.As I write this, Google's stock price has reached the irrationally exuberant high of $400. For nearly all workers, the ability to conduct searches has become a primary skill. My seventh-grade daughter recently had a biology assignment specifically to find obscure information on the Web using popular search sites.But people forget there is a world of searching that goes beyond keywords.I've been testing one such tool called Watson 2.0 from Intellext Inc. of Chicago. If something like Google is a steam shovel scooping up vast swatches of the Internet, Watson is an archaeologist's trowel, probing only the promising bits of dirt for highly relevant information.The two main elements of Watson that set it apart from regular search tools are limitation and context. You can limit what the software scours, and you can use it to find information within the context of what you're doing, such as writing a report.Watson searches the Web, to be sure, but limitation is established in that you configure it to cover the sites you want, broken down by news, blogs and research.For example, I set it to look at sites for Input, Fed Sources and the Immix Group'three outfits that specialize in research on the government IT market. I added GCN itself and even our competitors.Each of these specified sources is called a connector. (Out of the box, Watson includes connectors to Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass., and Highbeam Research of Chicago.)Context is the more powerful feature in Watson. The software's chief developer, Jay Budzik, says the tool grew out of research he did at Northwestern University. It integrates with certain productivity applications and evaluates the context of your search within the program you're using.For example, while writing this review, I highlighted 'Google, Microsoft and Yahoo' in my opening paragraph and Watson returned 161 items of news and analysis of the interplay among those companies. By contrast, when I entered those words into Google, I got 31 million returns.You can focus Watson's search on terms, such as I described, or you can let it keep searching as you work on your document. It is constantly roaming your connector collection as it senses changes in your document. You can weigh certain words as more important than others, and you can save specific search results.Government workers will like the fact that, unlike many search sites, Watson isn't collecting your search history or preferences and sending them to some remote server.Nor is it putting cookies on your browser. Note, however, that when you click on something Watson has returned, it launches your browser and takes you directly to the source.Functionally, Watson works like a specialized browser. You can set it up to launch and begin searching automatically. And you can have it locked to a specific location on your monitor. I found the constant refresh to be a bit annoying, so I tend to leave Watson's window minimized until I need to check the results.By allowing the user to focus Watson searches more narrowly than is possible on the big search engine sites, and because it searches blogs as well as Web sites, results can be very fresh. When I reopened this article after a few days' hiatus, I found several sites purporting to post recent, internal Microsoft memos'by now widely excerpted'about the company's next big thrust.When you do go to a Web site, because you're in what is essentially a new document, Watson relaunches its search. This can be distracting and counterproductive. But luckily, Watson has a pushpin button that 'pins' a set of results so you can browse around them without relaunching its search.Two other things to keep in mind: First, by specifying whatever research and news sites you wish, you run the risk of what I would call tautological searches. That is, you might inadvertently be closing off your search to sources that a Google would serve up while spinning around in a closed-loop world.Second, even Watson can turn in bizarre results. Because this document contains the word 'Watson' numerous times, one blog site returned a link titled 'emma watson in her underwear pics,' proving that no search technology is perfect.Still, at $99 per user per year, a Watson license would be a good investment for any knowledge worker. Company officials also said they are pursuing original equipment manufacturer software agreements with systems integrators to have Watson embedded in solutions they provide to government.

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