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Enough Keyword Searches. Just Answer My Question.

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SEARCH engines are so powerful. And they are so pathetically weak.

When it comes to digging up a specific name, date, phrase or price, search engines are unstoppable. The same is true for details from the previously concealed past. For better and worse, any information about any of us - true or false, flattering or compromising - that has ever appeared on a publicly available site is likely to be retrievable forever, or until we run out of electricity for the server farms. Carefree use of e-mail was once a sign of sophistication. Now to trust confidential information to e-mail is to be a rube. Despite the sneering term snail mail, plain old letters are the form of long-distance communication least likely to be intercepted, misdirected, forwarded, retrieved or otherwise inspected by someone you didn't have in mind.

Yet for anything but simple keyword queries, even the best search engines are surprisingly ineffective.

Recently, for example, I was trying to track the changes in California's spending on its schools. In the 1960's, when I was in public school there, the legend was that only Connecticut spent more per student than California did. Now, the legend is that only the likes of Louisiana and Mississippi spend less. Was either belief true? When I finally called an education expert on a Monday morning, she gave me the answer off the top of her head. (Answer: right in spirit, exaggerated in detail.) But that was only after I'd wasted what seemed like hours over the weekend with normal search tools. If it sounds easy, try using keyword searches to find consistent state-by-state data covering the last 40 years.

We live with these imperfections by trying to outguess the engines - what if I put "per capita spending by states" in quotation marks? - and by realizing that they're right for some jobs and wrong for others.

One branch of the federal government is desperate enough for a better search tool that its efforts could be a stimulus for fundamental long-term improvements. Last week, I spent a day at a workshop near Washington for the Aquaint project, whose work is unclassified but has gone virtually unnoticed in the news media. The name stands for "advanced question answering for intelligence," and it refers to a joint effort by the National Security Agency, the C.I.A. and other federal intelligence organizations. To computer scientists, "question answering," or Q.A., means a form of search that does not just match keywords but also scans, parses and "understands" vast quantities of information to respond to queries. An ideal Q.A. system would let me ask, "How has California's standing among states in per-student school funds changed since the 1960's?" - and it would draw from all relevant sources to find the right answer.

In the real Aquaint program, the questions are more likely to be, "Did any potential terrorist just buy an airplane ticket?" or "How strong is the new evidence of nuclear programs in Country X?" The presentations I saw, by scientists at universities and private companies, reported progress on seven approaches to the problem. (The new I.B.M. search technology discussed here last year is also part of the Aquaint project.)

There will be more to say later about this effort. On the bright side, apart from whatever the project does for national security, its innovations could eventually improve civilian search systems, much as the Pentagon's Arpanet eventually became the civilian Internet. Of course, the dark potential in ever more effective search-and-surveillance systems is also obvious.

For the moment, consider several here-and-now innovations that can improve on the standard Google-style list of search hits. Ask Jeeves, whose site is Ask.com, recently introduced two features that enhance its long-established question-and-answer format. One tries to recast search terms into a question that can be answered on the Web; the other offers suggestions to broaden or narrow the search. Answers.com, a free version of what was once called GuruNet, combines conventional search results with questions and answers.

Two related sites, Clusty.com and its parent, Vivisimo.com, categorize the hits from each search, producing a kind of table of contents of results. Another site, Grokker.com, does something similar in a visual form; it is free online or $49 for a desktop version. And the bizarrely named but extremely useful MrSapo.com has become my favorite search portal, because it allows quick, easy comparisons of the results of the same search on virtually any major engine.

By JAMES FALLOWS.

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