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Blekko launches the biased search engine

Tired of generic search results? Blekko's engine and philosophy really is different.

You know how you always slow down to rubberneck when you pass a car wreck on the freeway? I'm that way with new search engines. I slow down, I look for the pool of blood, and then I resume my normal Google speed and forget the twisted metal in the rear-view. Previous wrecks include Cuil, Hakia, Powerset (wrapped into Bing), Clusty, and RedZ--each had a special trick, but they've all faded from memory, some after crashing in flames, some after making their founders rich. And some still plod along in the breakdown lane, while the real traffic blasts past them.

But wait, here's another: Blekko, whose name means, according to CEO Rick Skrenta, Our naming firm sucked, so we went with this instead.

Blekko's technology is quite clever, and the economics of search are such that it might actually work as a business and pay back the $24 million that's been invested in the company so far. Blekko's challenge is not to unseat Google but to simply not fade into obscurity.

Blekko returns refreshingly different results than Google. Sometimes better -- but not always. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

Here's how Blekko will try to do that: this search engine keeps lists of categorized sites that can be applied to queries. For example, if you're searching for medical information, your query can either automatically or manually be restricted to just sites that are actual, bona fide sources, not just spam farms. Blekko has seven main categories (health, automotive, lyrics, colleges, personal finance, recipes, and hotels), and users can also create their own. If you search for "cure for headaches," for example, Blekko gives you a good set of results from WebMD, the NIH, etc. Google's results, in comparison, are less focused. However, that's a query that Blekko provided to me. On some others (try, "Boxer's fracture"), I found Blekko no better than Google.

You can also tilt your search results in the direction you like by using a category of bias, like "liberal" or "conservative." Categorization lists are applied by appending a "slashtag." The query, "climate change /conservative" will give you politically slanted results, for example. "Climate change /science" will restrict your results to hits from scientific Web sites.

Users can also create their own slashtags, and other users can contribute to those lists, if their creators allow. Blekko is potentially a great search engine for curators and researchers. (This has been done before, though: See Rollyo.)

One very cool part of the Blekko technology is that it uses spam as a signal of significance. If a result returns a lot of hits from known automatic linkfarms or spam sites, the Blekko engine uses this data as an indicator of the importance of the query and aggressively filters out the less-than-useful returns.

As a business, Blekko is no Google, and Skrenta has no illusions that it will put a dent in it. He says, "We'd like to be the No. 3 search engine," and believes that the site could be profitable with 1 million to 2 million queries a day (out of the over 1 billion now done on the Web). The site's not running any monetization schemes or advertising at the moment.

Blekko may in fact win enough repeat users to make it a going business, but it won't have a real, Web-wide impact unless its concept--that bias is good and more aggressive search filtering is needed --gets some traction. There's nothing to stop Google from becoming more Blekko-like and starting to return results even more user-specific and location-specific than they already are. Until then, though, Blekko is a solid alternative to Google and Bing for anyone, and more importantly it's got great potential for researchers, librarians, journalists, or anyone who's willing to put some work into how their search engine functions in order to get better results.