Search engines: which is the best?

By Franco Niccolucci

Franco Niccolucci is the director of the VAST-LAB research laboratory at PIN in Prato, Italy, and the coordinator of ARIADNE, a research infrastructure on archaeological data integration. His main research interests concern knowledge organization of archaeological documentation and the communication of cultural heritage.

A typical Yankee attitude is to rank everything, sometimes mixing apples with pears. A recent discussion on the EUROPEANA-TECH list gave me the same feeling: is Google a better search engine than Europeana? Put like this, it makes little sense: a generalist search engine like Google is always better and always worse than a specialist one. Everybody will agree that if one is looking for a hotel or for a flight, there are dedicated search engines that work much better than Google, although the latter also tries to cover these niches. So, it is obvious that as regards culture Europeana is an easy winner. The difference between the two is that Europeana is constructed, Google is obtained. Behind Europeana there is human effort, behind Google there is artificial intelligence. Europeana breaks the crust of Internet offer, Google just surfs it. Europeana assigns meaning with its semantic approach, Google infers it from literals. And, last but not least, Google is for everybody, Europeana is for some, possibly for many but not for all. Hotel search engines address tourists and flight search engines address travellers; both do their job well because their target is well defined, and the tool design is user-centred. In the cultural domain, there are similar dedicated search engines that satisfy the needs of well-defined communities. I happen to be the coordinator of one of these, ARIADNE (www.ariadne-infrastructure.eu) on digital archaeology, dedicated to professional archaeologists and tailored to their research needs. Apparently, researchers are happy with it and statistics show that one-third of European archaeologists used it in its first year of existence (2017): not too bad for a discipline where the digital component is just instrumental for discovery. ARIADNE is targeted on research and on heritage management; it is possibly too advanced for the curious citizen but may be suitable for students or for educated amateurs. It offers semantic search facilities on a catalogue of 2,000,000 items, with plans to double or triple the content in the near future.

I know that there are similar systems for other culture-related disciplines. An alliance of all these cultural data aggregators, including of course Europeana, might offer users new great opportunities. It is possible, although not straightforward, because the semantics on which aggregations are based are compatible, but special attention will need to be paid to the design of the user interface.

Back to the original competition among search engines, in my opinion the real question is: can you trust what you find? In principle, the content of Europeana, ARIADNE and the like are guaranteed by the reputable institutions that provided it; Google’s, by definition, is not. Closing this note with a light-hearted example, searching for “Ancient aliens” gave more than 45 million hits on Google. On the contrary, for both Europeana and ARIADNE, the search interface gave some results – all evidently unrelated to such fake pseudo-theory – only when the search term is written without “”, enabling a separate search on each word, i.e. “ancient” and “aliens”. But, as expected, no hits come out on either catalogue when the user makes clear that the search term is formed by the two words together by encompassing them in “”, i.e. “ancient aliens”.

In conclusion, it is quality (and not quantity) that counts: when searching on Google, caveat emptor.

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