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Tech Lab

Search giants’ new features designed to dazzle new users

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / May 31, 2012
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Internet searching has become an instinct. We simply type, practically without thinking about what we’re doing.

But at Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., and Yahoo Inc., there are people who think about it plenty. All three have recently launched major enhancements to their search engines, all designed to keep habitual users coming back to their particular sites — and to reel in newcomers.

Each innovation is quite different from the others. Google’s new Knowledge Graph delivers instantaneous bursts of practical information; Bing’s Sidebar makes searching more social by linking to Facebook and Twitter; and Yahoo’s Axis generates a browser within a browser to display an instant visual summary of search results.

At first glance, Knowledge Graph seems the least seductive of the lot. But run a few searches, and the romance begins. Do you wonder why Google records and analyzes billions of our searches? So it can figure out what most people really want to know when they type, say, “Museum of Science Boston.”

In a box on the upper right side of the page, Knowledge Graph instantly displays a map of the museum’s location, with a link for driving directions. There’s a snippet of Wikipedia information about the museum, its address, phone number, hours of operation, the name of the architect who designed the place, and when it was built. Google also adds links to four other nearby museums.

Knowledge Graph is less impressive on more obscure searches. When I asked for information on gyrocompasses, I got only the traditional Google results. But for the stuff that millions research every day, Knowledge Graph often dials up the right answers in seconds.

But speed isn’t everything. You might want the deeper knowledge that comes from asking other people about a topic. For that, log onto Bing, and check out the new Sidebar on the right side of the page.

The Sidebar allows you to log into Facebook, making Bing your social search companion. Type in a Bing query, and you now see a listing of your Facebook friends who may know about the topic.

Two of my Facebook friends have posted pictures of the Museum of Fine Arts; they probably know about the place. I can click their names and ask them questions via Facebook. Or I can open a window and type a question that’ll go to all my Facebook friends and subscribers.

Sidebar’s “People Who Know” feature searches relevant Twitter messages. When I searched “Boston Celtics,” the results included Paul Pierce’s Twitter feed. Ryan Sweeney’s Twitter persona popped up when I searched “Boston Red Sox.” It’s supposed to check the social networks LinkedIn and Google Plus but I never received results from either.

Social searching won’t instantly improve your experience. But it works; within hours, I got useful answers to a question I posted. If you’ve got lots of smart Facebook friends, and you’re not in a hurry, Bing’s Sidebar has the makings of a potent research tool.

Yahoo’s Axis is the most aggressive upgrade of the lot. Unlike the others, it requires a software add-on for the most popular Web browsers. It also comes as an app for Apple Inc’.s iPhone and iPad.

When running on the desktop, Axis places a slightly distracting search window in the lower left corner of the browser. Type in a search and it expands to fill the bottom third of the screen. Instantly you see miniature versions of pages Yahoo has discovered. Click an arrow and you can review dozens of them in a few seconds. Or you can switch to photo mode and do the same thing with images.

Axis also shares your bookmarks. Pick a favorite on one Axis-equipped device, and it appears on all of them.

Axis is a handy tool on the desktop, but an utter delight on the iPad, where it replaces the Safari browser. Slide your fingers down the screen, and Axis appears at the top, instantly displaying a stream of Web pages and pictures.

With so many new features, choosing the best site is a lot less instinctive than it used to be.

But it’s also a lot more productive, and a lot more fun.

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Google, Bing, and Yahoo have introduced new features aimed at making their search results unique: