What happens when the woman behind Google's powerful indexing system leaves the company and co-founds her own search engine? Perhaps not everything you'd expect. Cuil (pronounced "cool"), a search engine named for the Gaelic word for knowledge, has lots of unique tools designed to help people refine their searches, but the results themselves could be easier to page through, and they're not as relevant as Google's. However, Cuil has improved since its launch and the service has potential.
Cuil's main search page is striking: a simple search bar atop a black background. In contrast to the austere main page, the search results page has a more open, none-too-serious look: a white background with search results appearing as blurbs across three columns (you can click a link in the bottom right corner to make it show two columns instead). The font on the page is rounded and stocky. Overall, Cuil seems well-suited to the Wikipedia generation that's used to curiously meandering through links. But for people who need answers in a hurry, the interface isn't ideal. However, we like how there are no ads on the search results page (even Google has a few--albeit, unintrusive ones).
On the right-hand side, you'll see a pane called "Explore by Category," replete with even more specific topics (in this case, "Macintosh Laptops," "Toshiba Laptops," and "Intel," among others). When you roll over a category with your mouse, it will automatically expand, revealing subtopics ("Macintosh Laptops," for example, includes links for the MacBook, MacBook Pro, iBook, and iBook G4). Moreover, when you roll over these links, you'll see a definition.
On top are tabs with more general categories. For instance, if you search for "laptop" you'll see categories such as "Laptop Batteries" or, if you click "more," "Cheap Laptop," etc. Although we find the roll-over definitions in the right-hand Explore by Category pane useful and innovative, we're more likely to use the tabs on top, since the categories aren't too specific. In the case of a search for laptops, for example, the tab for "Cheap Laptop" is more useful to us than the right-hand Explore category, "Dell Hardware."
Cuil goes through great lengths to help users find what they're looking for. When you enter search terms on the main page, Cuil offers suggestions; If you search for something other than a person, you'll see tabs on the top of the screen helping you refine your search. For instance, when we searched for "laptop" we saw tabs at the top for "All Results," "Laptop Computers," "Laptop Batteries," "Laptop Battery," and "more..."
Cuil boasts that it organizes results not based on numerical popularity, but based on relevance. In the site's mission statement, it says it "stay[s] on that page and analyze[s] the rest of its content, its concepts, their inter-relationships and the page's coherency."
In addition to the fact that they were a pain to page through, Cuil's search results were hit-and-miss when it came to their relevance. When we did a search for Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer who won eight gold medals this summer, the first hit, shown in the upper left hand corner, was the Wikipedia entry about him. That makes sense. But missing from that first page of results was the official site for the 2008 games. Michael Phelps' official Web site appears atop the second column of hits, but it was the site he set up in 2004.
We did another search to make sure this wasn't a fluke. When we searched for Michelle Obama, Barack's wife, Wikipedia was again the first hit. Although there were tons of news articles, including some blogs we hadn't heard of, the first page of results didn't include anything from Barack Obama's official campaign site. Meanwhile, if you do a Google search for Michelle Obama, the second hit is the section of Barackobama.com where you can learn more about Michelle.
To be fair, searching for things other than people, and clicking on more specific tabs, yielded more useful search results. If we were interested in laptop batteries, for instance, we would have had a wealth of relevant links at our disposal.
Like Google, Cuil attempts to be a one-size-fits-all engine: On the one hand, the autocompleting search bar, tabs, and Explore by Category feature make it easy to hone in on the information you're looking for. On the other hand, its results aren't always relevant, and appear in two or three columns of blurbs. Moreover, they often come from unconventional and less reliable sources, such as blogs and smaller news outlets. In both design and content, Cuil is best for people who aren't in a hurry, and enjoy curiously clicking around the Web. To get the most answers--and the most relevant ones--in a hurry, stick with Google.