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Aug 7, 2009

Search engine comparison for software developers

For today's software developer it is difficult to imagine that there once was a time where we did not have instant access to information on the Internet to help us do our work: Answers to questions, howto-guides, reference material, documentation... whatever we need, it is usually just a quick search away.

I can't count how many times I simply searched for something like "Django ... such and such ..." to instantly find the relevant documentation or reports of other people's experience while working on a Django project, for example. The amount of time this saved me is immeasurable. I have a friend who - as a software developer - is not allowed to access the Internet while at work! The mind boggles. How much does this cost his employer in lost productivity?

Anyway, clearly the access to search engines while developing software should be considered essential. If during a job interview I'd ask a candidate something like: "How do you define a C function pointer?" and the answer would be: "I've done it before, but can't recall the exact syntax now... I'd just google it!" ... well, I would consider that to be a perfectly valid answer, to be honest. One more reason why these types of questions are quite meaningless in interviews. But that's a different topic.

So, the question then is: What is the best search engine for a software developer to use? Many people default to Google, obviously, but personally, I don't like to let one company have all the information about me, so I like to mix it up a little. The difference in search results can be quite startling, though. With Bing as the new arrival on the scene, let's perform a completely subjective and un-scientific experiment and ask four of the major search engines the same set of questions and see what they tell us.

For this test, I have chosen Bing, Google, Yahoo and Ask. Sadly Yahoo search will soon stop to exist when they start using Bing as a search provider, but for sentimental reasons and while it is still available, I thought I include them. Especially since Yahoo was my default search engine for quite some time now.

I have chosen four questions, which obviously cover only a tiny fraction of software development related areas:
  1. "Django IntegerField model": Here I would like to see links to the Django project documentation on how to define an IntegerField in a model. It should be noted that 'IntegerField' also exists as part of forms, so the search engine should not confuse these two.
  2. "Define C function pointer": Our 'interview question' from above. The top results should lead to pages that very clearly explain how to define this thing.
  3. "TCP checksum calculation": I would like to see links to pages that explain how the algorithm works that computes TCP checksums.
  4. ".Net class inheritance": I'm not an MS developer at all, so I'm not even quite sure whether this question makes much sense, but I thought I try this one, just on a hunch.
Ok, let's start...

The test

Question 1. "Django IntegerField model"

Here are the results from all four search engines, side by side. In all images here, you can see Bing in the first column, followed by Google, then Yahoo and finally Ask in the last column.

  • Bing: The first results are essentially useless, leading (ironically) to Google code pages, followed by some obscure changeset in the Django code itself. Sure, you can see an IntegerField used there. However, the link to the Django docs, which I was looking for, is only at the very bottom of the page.
  • Google: The results are highly relevant (only peeve might be that they are pointing to docs for the SVN version, not the latest stable release version, but that's really minor). A link to the older Django version's docs is in third place, which is useful. But as we can see, the ads are not quite as relevant.
  • Yahoo: The results are not bad. However, I didn't like the fact that it pointed me to docs for a much older version of Django in the top result. They could have done better here.
  • Ask: The top results are good. However, I am disturbed by those ads, which appear right under the top result. They could have shown them on the side. But on Ask the side space is taken up by "Related Searches", which in this particular case were completely irrelevant.
Ranking: Google wins hands down. Ask in second place, closely followed by Yahoo. Bing is dead last.

Question 2. "Define C function pointer"

Here are the results for this question.

  • Bing: Again disappointing. The top result is about a function pointer validation function... which would be relevant if obviously I didn't need to learn first how to define a function pointer. But since I am looking only for how to define a pointer these results don't help me much. The third one is even about how to call C functions from Forth!?
  • Google: This is exactly what I was looking for: A tutorial! Top link, good job Google!
  • Yahoo: Not bad, with the tutorial in second place. For some reason, the Wikipedia entry comes first. Both Yahoo and Google generally give quite some weight to Wikipedia pages, which I am normally fine with. In this particular case, the tutorials are really what I'm looking for, though.
  • Ask: Again a very good top result, just like Google, marred by irrelevant annoying ads, followed by other good results (for example how to define a function-pointer parameter for a function, which is very nice).
Ranking: Ask wins this one based on the result quality, even though their ads bother me. Google is a very close second, Yahoo in third, but still close. Bing is way off the mark again.

Question 3. "TCP checksum calculation"

The results for this one, side by side.

  • Bing: Very disappointing results at the top, leading to small discussion threads and postings here and there. Not at all what I was looking for.
  • Google: Excellent results, especially the third link ("TCP Checksum code"). That page contains a textual description of the algorithm as well as actual sample code. Perfect. The further links on the page remain relevant as well. The PDF in fourh place is actually quite good.
  • Yahoo: The top three results are the same as Google, so that's very good. The relevancy of the remaining links trails off quickly, though.
  • Ask: The top three results are the same as Google and Yahoo. The remaining links remain more relevant than Yahoo, but not quite as good as Google, though.
Ranking: Google in first, followed by Ask and Yahoo. Bing again in last place.

Question 4. ".Net class inheritance"

Here is a question for Microsoft's Bing to shine! It should know all about that, right? Well, here are the results...

  • Bing: Oh the humanity! What were they thinking? Again, the top link goes to some forum page, the second one is a blog. That's a recurring and unsuccessful theme with Bing. The third one contains some sample code, but is basically someone making the case for multiple-inheritance, which apparently is missing in .Net.
  • Google: Hits the mark again with the top link pointing straight to the relevant page of Microsoft's own online documentation. Why couldn't Bing come up with this? And the second link is great, too: A tutorial for class inheritance, which is always nice to see.
  • Yahoo: Good results in the top two spots, with a useful page about interfaces included, which Google didn't show. But the third result is disappointing: Apparently, Yahoo was confused by the domain name for that result, which ended in ".net".
  • Ask: The ads are disturbing as usual, but the top results are the same as Google's, which is good. Not visible in this screenshot, because too much valuable space was used by those ads, there is also a good tutorial link further down, which Google didn't show.
Ranking: Ask by a slim margin (if we manage to ignore those ads), Google in close second, followed by Yahoo a bit further back. Bing is again at the very end with a smattering of useless results.

I sure hope that Microsoft's own developers are free to use Google or Ask at work.

Conclusions

Let's start at the back.

Maybe they are still trying to sort out issues and will improve over time. However, at the moment Bing is just completely hopeless when it comes to these kinds of queries. I guess they are much more consumer oriented. As it stands, though, for questions software developers need to ask for their work, Bing quite plainly ... sucks!

Yahoo still tends to be good and delivers useful results. But while the top results are usually ok, the relevance of further results quickly drops. Of course, that will all end once they switch to Bing. At that moment they will get much, much worse. What a sad loss for the Internet to see Yahoo search go.

Ask and Google are actually ranking equally well here in this test. That may come as a surprise to many. The biggest annoyance about Ask is the placement of the ads right after the top result. And their "Related Searches" links usually don't provide any value at all for these types of searches. But the quality of the links is about as good as Google. The ads on both Ask and Google are close to irrelevant in both cases.

A message to Ask: Please change the placement of your ads or at least distinguish them visually a bit more!

So, take your pick: Google or Ask. I will start using Ask, because as I said earlier, Google is on enough pages already by means of their ad network and they don't need to know everything about me. And with Yahoo ranking behind Ask and soon completely fading away, Ask remains the only real alternative for search results that are relevant to software developers.

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4 Comments:

  • I'd like to point out that your choice of phrases to search for could use some refinement. If I'm looking up a c function pointer, I won't search for "define c function pointer", I'll search for "c function pointer definition". Put that into bing and google and the first result of each is to the portion of a series of tutorials specifically on function pointers and the types of function pointers.

    I decided to do a reasonable search on it because your choice of search terms for it looked so odd. All search engines are pitiful for searching specific, detailed information on many of the more difficult development issues. However, this issue stems from the fact that no search engine allows for regular expression type syntax or proper searching of symbols (/-=+'";:&*%$!~ all become spaces, .'s or "any character's" to the major search engines).

    By Anonymous Matt, At August 7, 2009 at 12:01 PM  

  • @Matt: Thank you for your comment. But even the modified phrasing you suggested gives very poor results in Bing and not at all what you described.

    Could the fact that I am based in New Zealand cause Bing to return what it does? I tried it through a US-based proxy and still get the same results.

    By Anonymous Juergen Brendel, At August 7, 2009 at 12:11 PM  

  • That is odd. For the search of:
    http://www.bing.com/search?q=c+function+pointer+definition&go=&form=QBLH&qs=n , the first four links are:
    The Function Pointer Tutorials - Syntax
    The Function Pointer Tutorials
    Pointer (computing) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    Everything you need to know about pointers in C

    This is using Google Chrome on Linux from midwest U.S.

    By Anonymous Matt, At August 7, 2009 at 1:05 PM  

  • @Matt: This is very odd, indeed.

    I copied and pasted the link you provided into my URL bar (Firefox, Ubuntu) and I get very different results.

    However, when I log into a server in the US and use Lynx to query Bing from there, I get the results you described.

    How odd is this?

    By Anonymous Juergen Brendel, At August 7, 2009 at 1:43 PM  

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