Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2003
GuruNet as a Reference Tool Goes Beyond Search Engines


One of the great benefits of the Internet is that anyone with a connected computer can get useful information without much effort. You just type a topic into Google and up comes a long list of Web pages that might tell you about it.

But as brilliant as Google is, this process has several limitations. First of all, in most cases Google doesn't actually provide you an answer, just a list of links to Web pages where information might be found. So getting the exact information you want requires more steps: You have to browse through the links Google offers, pick out one that looks good, then go to it and look for the relevant material.
Second, you're doing all this in a general, undifferentiated piece of software called a Web browser that isn't designed to help you drill down into information.
Third, neither the browser nor Google gives you a good sense of the credibility of the sources that turn up, just their popularity.

But I have been testing a new, expanded version of a clever piece of Windows reference software that can give you quick answers instead of links. Those answers are presented in a format designed for reference work and are drawn from known, standard sources. Oh, and this program will also throw in that same general Google search, plus results from other search engines, in case its answers leave you wanting more.

The software is called GuruNet and can be downloaded from www.gurunet.com. The product of a small Israeli company called Atomica, GuruNet has been around for years as a free utility, but now it has been greatly expanded and reorganized, and is being sold for $34.99. You can try it free of charge for two weeks before you're asked to pay. If you decide not to pay, you can still use it as just a dictionary and thesaurus.

Searching a name on GuruNet
Even though it taps into the Internet, GuruNet isn't accessed through your Web browser. It is a separate, specialized program. You can look up a word, phrase, name, place, company or other term in GuruNet in one of several ways. You can put your mouse cursor on any word or phrase in any screen on your PC -- a word-processing document, spreadsheet, Web page, e-mail, etc. Then, just hold down the ALT key and click your mouse button. If you're online, GuruNet will pop up and rapidly fetch answers from the Web.

Or you can type your query into a space at the top of the GuruNet screen, or into a bar that can slide out from the lower right of your screen. Finally, you can launch GuruNet and simply browse through its library of hundreds of thousands of terms organized into categories such as business, government, people, general reference, legal, medical, science and sports.

GuruNet draws on sources including the Columbia Encyclopedia, the American Heritage Dictionary and Roget's Thesaurus, as well as specialized references for technical terms.

Let's say you search for "circumference" in Google. The first few entries returned include a Web site offering lessons in calculating circumferences, a site about a band called Circumference, a site about an ancient scholar who computed the diameter of Earth, and a German Web page about management training.

But if you type "circumference" into GuruNet, the program gives you several definitions, speaks the word aloud, shows you a graphic that explains it, and provides lots more information. It also can display that same Google search on the term and results from several other search engines. And all of this is organized neatly into tabbed sections.

Or let's say you want information about Microsoft. Google will provide a vast array of Web links, starting with the company's own site. But GuruNet will give you that same search, plus tabbed pages that include a brief history of the company, recent news stories about it, its stock price and more.
If you type in a technical term or acronym, GuruNet gives you a definition. If you type in a place name, you get a little history, the pronunciation, a map and the weather forecast.

GuruNet isn't perfect. If you type in "Seattle," for example, it first wants to tell you about an Indian chief rather than the city. A tab called Did You Mean? lets you switch to the city information, but it should assume the more common meaning. For some searches, where its reference works don't have information, GuruNet merely displays the Web search you could have gotten from Google or another search site.

And GuruNet can get confused. If you type in "Skowron," the surname of the great baseball player, it brings up his history and stats. But if you type in "Moose Skowron," his nickname, it just displays a Web search.

There are no ads in GuruNet, but if you are running a utility that blocks pop-up ads, some GuruNet pages may display an error message. I avoided this by holding down the control key and clicking on a tab in GuruNet, but it's irritating.
Still, if you want quick definitions and information from the Internet, instead of just Web links, GuruNet is a terrific reference. It's a very clever product that delivers real value.

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