When managers want business information, many now routinely look on the Internet. They use search engines like Alta Vista, Excite, or HotBot to find what they need. But how good are these search engines -- relative to oneanother -- at finding management information?

Eric T. Bradlow and David C. Schmittlein of Wharton's marketingdepartment set out to investigate thatissue. They present their findings in a newstudy quaintly titled "The Little EnginesThat Could: Modeling the Performance ofWorld Wide Web Search Engines."

Others have analyzed the performance ofsearch engines in the past. For example, ina study published last year in Science,Steve Lawrence and C. Lee Giles studiedthe relative number of Web sites thatturned up in response to searches onvarious search engines. What makes theWharton study different, however, is that,unlike previous investigations, it focusesspecifically on management information. Ineffect, it tries to determine which of sixpopular search engines -- AltaVista, Excite,HotBot, Infoseek, Northern Light, andLycos -- might be most likely to find particularkinds of business information.

Bradlow and Schmittlein believe that usinga search engine to find Web pages is a littlelike fishing with a net. The results dependnot only on the net's size but also the areaof the sea where it lands. Metaphorically,this is also true of World Wide Web searchengines. Bradlow and Schmittlein testedtheir digital "nets" by searching formarketing phrases such as "second moveradvantage," "perceived value pricing," and"umbrella branding" on various searchengines, and comparing the results.

Their conclusions show that among the sixsearch engines, Alta Vista and NorthernLight were "the best single choices." Forexample, Alta Vista turned up 38 Web pagesin response to the search term "umbrellabranding," while Northern Light returned 51,HotBot 21, Excite 7, Infoseek 4 and Lycos0. Bradlow and Schmittlein discovered thatLycos offers little coverage of marketingphrases, but sometimes found Web sitesthat did not show up in searches on othersearch engines. To return to the fishingmetaphor, it caught some fish that othernets missed.

If this is true, which search engine should abusy, Web-savvy marketing manager use?Bradlow and Schmittlein suggest that basedon their results, Alta Vista is the bestsingle search engine choice, since in theirstudy it found some 50% of the Web siteswith marketing phrases. "This is prettygood, but there is still plenty to find," theysay. If someone wants to use a secondengine for a follow-up search, NorthernLight or HotBot are good choices. For thosewith more perseverance, any of Excite,Infoseek or Lycos may turn up someadditional sites.

One other finding was that all six searchengines together found only 89% of therelevant Web sites, and missed 11%. Inthat regard, these little engines could dobetter.

All materials copyright © 1999 of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.