The Search Lounge



Type of engine:
General web search with integrated browsing capability.
Overall: Average.*
If this engine were a drink it would be…a French Kiss. It’s French, it has lots of ingredients, and if you take your time with it, it’ll get you where you need to go.

Relevancy of results:
*There are good sites in there, sometimes you just have to click around too much to find them. This score is what brings their overall rating down.
Freshness of results: Very good.
I was impressed. Of course I’ll need to check back over time since they just went live and so I assume the index was created recently. They advertise real-time indexing, but I’m assuming (though I don’t know) that it’s just for a targeted subset like news articles.
Breadth of results: Very good.
Not only is the breadth good, but the related terms and categories provide good access points.
Features and functionality: Very good.
Quality of help and “about us” pages: Very good.
Includes keyboard shortcuts and explanations of special features like phonetic search, which I’ll discuss a bit more of later.
Business model: Exalead makes its money by selling enterprise search. The web version of their search is a showcase for their technology. As far as I could tell there were no sponsored links.

Exalead is a French company that has been around since 2000, but just recently went live with a beta web search product. Their main line of business in enterprise search, but their web search is a nice way to attract attention. Although I’d heard about them, I hadn’t used Exalead until this review.

They claim they have indexed one billion pages and have plans to increase the size. And hey, a billion pages isn’t too shabby a starting point.

The front door is very sleek and minimalist with its aqua-marine and silvery gray colors, but do a search and you’ll be presented with a lot of information. Although it is a lot of info, it’s very well organized and you’ll be getting around Exalead like a pro in no time. They do a nice job of keeping focused on the site results in the main, central column of the page. The ancillary, though still very useful, stuff is to the left and right sides. Let’s take a walk through it all…

Thumbnails appears on the right side, next to the sites. I’m on a laptop so the images are pretty small, but on a larger monitor I’m pretty sure they’d be clearly visible. Thumbnail images are getting more popular and I think they do have value. However, going back to A9, I’d like to see more engines adopting an easily customizable interface so that I can include or exclude extras like thumbnails. If you click on the thumbnail it loads the site in the bottom half of the search result page. A nice feature is that the search terms you entered will be highlighted on the page. You can also bookmark the result to access it again the next time you’re using Exalead. This is a feature some of the big engines are using, but I’m not a convert yet. Between my browser’s bookmarks, my C drive, my RSS reader, and the online bookmark program I use, I’m not sure I need another set of bookmarks on a search engine. But who knows, maybe someday I’ll be convinced that I want to save at the search level.

Moving to the left side of the page, there are several things to see. For related terms, you can click on the square next to the related terms and it'll cross the term out. Nice way to track movement, especially for someone like me who is constantly refining queries and trying different things. It gets confusing to remember what I’ve already done. As far as I could tell, the related terms refines within results rather than sending out a brand new query.

Related categories pull relevant ODP categories. And Exalead also is displaying the bread crumb trail beneath each site result when it’s available. Thank you! I’ll never understand why the major engines moved away from doing that. There are several excellent web directories and if you map results to a directory it can only help users. The naysayers love to say that only 5% of people browse, but that’s misleading because a) people don’t browse if the interface isn’t done well, as it is with Exalead; b) for those of us who do browse it is extremely valuable; c) let’s run the numbers. Let’s pick a number that represents how many English speakers search the internet each day. How about 250 million? If 5% of those people browse that means that 12.5 million people browse. Obviously I’m making these numbers up, but you get the point. The number of people who like to browse categories is still in the millions, and that’s even with category browse not being promoted by Google.

Getting back to the features, you can limit results to audio or video. Very nice because a direct link to the file itself is actually returned so you don’t have to click to the page and then have to find the file on the page. This is conceptually similar, though implemented differently, to what BrainBoost does when they “snap open” to the section of the page that is relevant. I like this direct targeting of information and getting users as close to their goal as possible.

Exalead’s Advanced search is quite nice. You can limit by country, language, file format, title, and date. In the search method field there are some interesting choices: automatic word stemming, phonetic search, and approximate spelling. You can also set these on the preferences page.

I wanted to start with a relatively easy query, just to get a feel for Exalead’s interface: wes anderson. The results were all very relevant, but like I said, this is a give-me query. I like the way the results page looks. There’s a lot to see, but it’s easy to understand. If you click on the folder icon it will open a new page with results just from that site; sub-pages, in other words. The related terms were good, things like names of actors who have been in Anderson’s movies, other director’s names, and movies that are similar to Anderson’s films, like I Heart Huckabees. The related categories had Rushmore and the Royal Tenenbaums. It also had Indiana Sports and Recreation, which wasn’t relevant to me.

I played around with the phonetic search for wess andersen, but all the results on the first page included the words wess andersen, and didn't deviate from the way I spelled it. I also tried wess andersen with the approximate spelling search method. This did return some sites with the term wes, but no variations on andersen. I’m not sure how they’re building their phonetic search algorithm, but it’s a nice feature to have for those occasional things, like names, that you know how to pronounce but not spell. I also tried to search with the phonetic search for information about the German soccer player Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, pretending I didn't know how to spell his name. I tried karl heinz rumineger, karl heinz ruminiger, and karl heinz rumminiger, but got zero results for any of them. Not so good.

Let’s move on to a query that’s a bit tougher: 2004 world series winner returned as the first result. Probably when Exalead did their last crawl the NPR homepage had news about the World Series. The other results on page one weren't so good. I can tell why each of them were returned, but none of them were about the Red Sox’ win. There was a site about the Little League World Series, one about the Poker World Series, and then a few, like the World Conservation Union, that were not relevant at all. However, all is not lost. Lurking there on the left side of the page was a list of related terms that looked helpful. I clicked on the first one, series winner, and a bunch more sites about poker were returned, plus a couple of other random topics. But no MLB. The next related term, world series winner, did better for me. The first result was an article about Manny Ramirez winning the MVP. The results could have been better for this query.

To refine my query, I wanted to try out some Boolean logic. I entered: 2004 world series winner NOT "little league" NOT poker. And indeed I didn’t get anything about poker or little league. However, the World Conservation Union’s site was not only still there, but it got bumped up in the results. I played around with the related terms and the related categories, but the results just weren’t quite right. The categories were too general, like Recreation and Sports, and the terms looked good but didn’t return good sites.

I am really excited to see a new web search engine that not only incorporates, but actually highlights, the categories from a web directory. That alone is enough to keep me coming back. But since not everyone is a devout directory user, there are several other nice and useful features on Exalead. The phonetic search is nice to see applied to a web index, even though it wasn't really working so well for me. Also, being able to limit to audio or video files is helpful. Their interface is unique in that it offers several ways to get to results, such as thumbnails, previews, etc. Although most of these features are available in one form or another on other engines, Exalead has done a fine job of combining and bringing all these different elements together. Plus they're searching their own web index.

I hope they put some effort into improving relevance, because that’s the missing ingredient here. With their own index, their unique interface, and their wide-ranging selection of advanced features, Exalead has huge potential.


  • Hi Chris,

    Thank you for your deep coverage of our beta. We have analyzed the ranking problems you mention. They are mostly related to the fact that we are currently crawling and building the index in order to reach one billion web pages in a couple of weeks (BTW, by one billion Web pages, we mean one billion "real" pages---that would be two billion Web pages counting the way Google does, including pages without actual body).

    As a consequence, our technology used to "model" the web is currently not fully operational since we need to iterate the crawl for it to start working. That technology has been used by AOL France for three years and it pretty effective---but it needs data to work!

    Ranking should improve over time, as well as freshness. Our technology is indeed fully real-time for the entire index, not just for a small fraction of it (that's the advantage of having an enterprise technology applied to the Web, as opposed to a Web technology applied to the enterprise). But for the time being, we have chosen to grow the index rather than using the available bandwidth to refresh pages.

    That is why we call it a beta :o)


    Francois Bourdoncle, Exalead CEO

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at December 10, 2004 at 1:01 AM  

  • Oh, and I forgot to say that our Desktop Search tool is coming, with all the advanced features and user interface of our Web site available on your PC. Phonetic search is especially important when you are looking for contacts or emails in Outlook for instance.

    Francois Bourdoncle, Exalead CEO

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at December 10, 2004 at 1:35 AM  

  • Francois,
    Thank you for your comments. I am anxious to follow Exalead's progress, particularly around real-time searching and phonetic web search. I guess I need to get busy researching both of those topics!

    I'm glad you clarified what the one billion number really means because different engines do mean different things. Index size isn't the most important thing to me, but nowadays to be taken seriously a web index does need to be in the billions. Otherwise you're just not part of the club.

    Good luck with everything, and I look forward to seeing Exalead's relevancy improvements.


    By Blogger Daniel, at December 10, 2004 at 8:19 AM  

  • This is an interesting search engine. Not only do they have a large index but they seem to be pushing the envelope with their UI. Good to see the CEO stop by. The "Related Terms" function is poor IMHO.

    A search for "Google" shows 10 Related Terms, including these non-relevant ones:
    Bull fighting
    Gateway router
    Canadian art

    A query for "snowboarding" was also a mixed bag for Related Terms. It brought back these two:
    Remotely hosted, kids in all sizes


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