Yahoo is in the news this week, announcing improvements to their search engine. Last week, it was Microsoft showing off changes to their Live Search. Meanwhile, Google appears to be dividing changes into those that go straight onto the main search page (for example, do a search on a city name and you’ll likely get a map and suggested links) and developments that are strictly experimental. Whilst I know there are plenty of other search engines competing in this space, let’s have a look around the three main players and explore some of the new types of search results being presented. In this post, we are going conceptual…

Conceptal Search and Tanks

Conceptual search goes under various names – concept-driven; topic-driven; contextual; categorised; guided search… they all pretty much mean the same thing. When you enter some key words, you get a list of results along with a list of terms to further refine your query. For example, entering the search query ‘tank’ doesn’t give the search engine much information to go on. What sort of tank are you interested in? One that you put fuel into, one that holds water or one that blows up buildings? Put all the results together and it will be lucky dip as to whether what you are really looking for is in the top 10. But provide a list of concepts, and you can quickly filter down to your tank of choice. But how do Google, Microsoft and Yahoo present the results?


The first search engine to recognise the benefits of a clean user interface, meaning the others aren’t going to win on that score. But, amazingly, it’s about the only positive thing to say. For starters, it seems Google would prefer that you search in plural. It may find over 100,000 results but the first page is dismal. It even only manages to supply one sponsored link (nicely out of the way over on the side). No concepts to help refine your search meaning the results are a lucky dip in terms of relevance (page 2 is a little bit better than page 1, but that’s hardly a positive point.)


The results page is easy to navigate. Concepts are displayed on the right side of the page to refine your search. Now for the negatives… 1. The sponsored sites take up a big fat wedge of the main results area. I don’t mind a couple but 3 just steps over the mark into annoying. But not as annoying as the biased concepts. There are many different types of tanks in this world, but Microsoft has chosen to highlight games, military and warfare. Boys and their toys…


Like Microsoft, the results page has taken a leaf out of Google’s book and is nice and clean. Like Microsoft, there are sponsored ads in the main results page but Yahoo has succeeded in knowing when enough is enough and just supplies two that don’t hog the page too much. Concepts are listed at the top of the main page instead of to the right. (Personally, I prefer over on the right). And it seems Yahoo is a more peaceful company than its rivals. Fish Tank makes an appearance in the list of concepts, along with sports people who have ‘tank’ in their name. Military results barely make the top 10 results, with music and sports seeming to dominate relevance ranking. Nice to see the YouTube widget appearing high-up too.

Round 1 Conclusion

(In summary, winner gets 3 points, 2nd place gets 2 points, 3rd place gets 1 point…)

Conceptual Search




– Range of concepts




– Relevance of results




– Presentation





3 pts

6 pts

9 pts

When it comes to conceptual search, Yahoo and Microsoft are streets ahead of Google. You can try out concept-driven search over on Google’s experimental pages, but it only works for certain keywords (nothing for Tank although it did provide concepts for other words)

It’s interesting to see just how different the results can be depending on the search engine’s preferences. Microsoft opted heavily for military and computer game references to ‘tank’ with Yahoo balancing sports and music references with military and toys/games. Hilariously, the sponsored ads back up the bias. Number one ad on Microsoft’s results is for radio controlled tanks (from a site called ‘bigboystoyz’ – need we say more). Yahoo goes for Thomas The Tank Engine… Yahoo wins on relevance for recognising that the word tank is used in many different contexts. Microsoft’s results seem to assume that if you are searching for tanks you want to blow something up, either literally or in a computer game.

Yahoo just wins on the user interface. Microsoft does a better job of laying out the concepts (in my opinion), by listing them on the right side of the page (Google is doing the same over on the experimental site). But Yahoo wins for keeping ads out of the way and enabling far more results to be viewed in the same screen space. Google bombed by making the first page of results worst than the second page, creating unnecessary clicks.

Side note: Why Tank?

So I could have chosen a more common term to demonstrate concepts, but a global search engine should be able to cope with any kind of search query. The reason for choosing ‘tank’… Back in 2001, when I was presenting the first version of SharePoint Portal Server to an audience from the Ministry of Defence, I was challenged to show how SharePoint could differentiate between documents describing the fuel capacity of a replacement tank for a vehicle and documents describing the firing range of tanks that blow up buildings. It’s one of those memories that has stuck…

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