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TidBITS Macintosh Search Tool Shootout

For some time, we’ve been lamenting the fact that TidBITS doesn’t have a good, full-text, search engine. Years ago, Ephraim Vishniac set up an excellent WAIS source for TidBITS, but that was when Thinking Machines ran the public WAIS server on their Connection Machine. That service eventually went away, and several attempts were made to replace it. The current search engine is run by Sensei Consulting in Australia, and although it’s welcome, we often hear of troubles accessing it. In addition, searches return entire issues, rather than articles, so you must also search within the returned issue.

A variety of searching tools that run on Macs have appeared over the years, but we’ve never had the proper combination of time, hardware, and experience to put them through their paces. So, we’ve come up with a different method for evaluating these pieces of software – we’re going to have a search tool shootout!

We have a number of goals in mind. First, we want to pull out the best search tools for the Macintosh among the numerous contenders. Second, we want to let the creators of these programs strut their stuff. Third, we want to provide a way for people to search TidBITS easily.

Who Can Participate? Anyone can participate, although we expect that those who have written search tools will be the most interested, since this will give them a chance to show off in a real-world test that will be useful to thousands of people. If, however, you’re a consultant and specialize in setting up Macintosh-based search tools, you’re welcome to compete.

What’s the Test? Once everyone who has expressed interest in participating has contacted our Managing Editor Jeff Carlson at <[email protected]>, we’ll provide access to all back issues of TidBITS, in HTML format. No pansying around here – the competition will use the contents of over 360 issues of TidBITS, about 11 MB of text covering the last seven years. Once everyone has the issues, they can set up their search engines. We don’t have anywhere near enough Macs to host this, so contestants will have to provide their own hardware and Internet connection. Technical questions regarding our format or other issues can be directed to me at <[email protected]>.

Specification — No contest would be complete without rules. All entries:

  • Must offer full-text search capabilities of all TidBITS issues.
  • Must be made with and run on a single Macintosh running the Mac OS.
  • Must be accessible via the Web.
  • Must automatically integrate new issues every week.
  • Must return results at an article level (articles all start with <H2> tags).
  • Must display results using HTML source from TidBITS issues, including hot links.

In addition, these bonus items could be included and will improve an entry’s chance of winning:

  • Sorting results by date or relevance
  • Low cost
  • Short setup time
  • Other additional features, such as suggesting alternative sites to search if a search comes up empty

The Time Frame — We don’t expect contestants to drop everything and start working on this full time – in fact, we’d prefer to hear things in the best entries like "Yeah, I whipped this off while I was waiting for my pizza to arrive." The Macintosh is about ease-of-use, and we hope that it won’t be difficult to set up these systems. Here are the dates to watch:

  • 17-Mar-97: Deadline for entering the contest.
  • 21-Apr-97: Deadline for completing entries. Judging starts.
  • 12-May-97: Winner announced.

How Will We Judge? Implementation details are up to the people participating in the shootout, but we have guidelines that contestants should keep in mind. All of the specifications should be met, although we won’t disqualify entries for not meeting all of them (other than the Mac and Web requirements, which aren’t negotiable).

  • Compliance with the specifications
  • Speed of searching, independent of connection speed
  • Attractive and usable interface for the search page
  • Attractive and readable results pages
  • Cost and setup time
  • Additional features

The Prizes — Obviously, a contest requires prizes, and we’ll reward the winning entry (or entries) with the main thing we have – exposure to an estimated 150,000 Macintosh users. We plan to write about the shootout, looking at each entry and concentrating on the best of the crop. Then, assuming everything works out, we’ll implement the best solution on our servers for everyone to use, giving that entry full credit and significant exposure. Other contestants can continue to host their searchable archives of TidBITS as a real-world demonstration of what their software can do, and we’ll link to those who keep the archive up-to-date with new issues.

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