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5 Sites That Are Better Than Google

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How much do I love Google? Thanks to the stats provided by Google Web History, it's easy to quantify: Over the past four and a half years, I've Googled for information 43,295 times. That works out to about one search per hour, 24/7/365. If that doesn't indicate passion for the world's most popular search engine, I don't know what does.

But I'd never argue that Google is always the fastest, most effective way to find facts, seek advice, take actions, or simply satisfy your curiosity about the world around you. Actually, there are more viable Google alternatives than ever. For the most part, they don't compete by trying to out-Google Google at basic Web searching. Instead, they do useful things that Google doesn't.

I'm nowhere near as dependent on any of these five free services as I am on Google -- but I use and recommend them all.

When Microsoft relaunched its blah Windows Live search engine as Bing last year, it didn't just give it a different name and a fresh coat of paint. The new version is Google's most formidable competitor for general-purpose Web searching, with numerous nice touches -- for instance, you get playable previews of videos right in search results. 

Microsoft smartly chose to put extra effort into a few key areas, such as its travel section, which is uncannily similar to the excellent Kayak.com. You can enter dates and locations for plane tickets or hotel stays, then get a grid of results that you can further refine -- to direct flights only, for instance, or to hotels with swimming pools. It'll even tell you whether you're likely to save money if you postpone making a reservation a while longer.

Aardvark is a free service (located at Vark.com) whose members serve as a panel of experts on an array of topics. You can ask questions via e-mail or your favorite instant-messaging service; Aardvark relays them to people who it thinks may know about the subject, then collects their answers and delivers them back to you. 

It works well when you'd rather get quick advice from a few real knowledgeable people than scour Google results for relevant links on a question such as "Should I buy a mountain bike, a road bike, or a hybrid to ride around San Francisco?" When you belong to Aardvark, it gives you the chance to play expert too, by sending you questions from other users on matters you're interested in.

Wolfram|Alpha calls itself a "computational knowledge engine," but I think of it as a 21st-century equivalent of a thick, fact-packed paperback almanac. It's a vast repository of knowledge skewing towards the mathematical and scientific that you can explore by entering questions. 

For purely factual, objective, simple questions such as "What's the wind chill in Barcelona?," "How old was Theodore Roosevelt when he died?," and "What was the population of the U.S. in 1970?," there's nothing better. It also knows the calories in a Big Mac (805). And it'll even tell me the chances that I'll win California's MegaMillions lottery if I enter (1 in 175,711,536).

If you already use Twitter, you know that one of the best things about the ridiculously trendy social network site is the bevy of links that members share to news stories and other interesting stuff. But you don't need to be a Twitter maniac to use it to find worthwhile links on timely topics. In fact, you don't even need to have a Twitter account. 

You'll find a Google-like search engine at search.twitter.com that returns 140-character "tweets" from Twitter members, often containing links to articles around the Web. (I used it Monday morning to find interesting tidbits relating to Sunday's Super Bowl commercials.) It's a good way to dip your toe into the Twitter stream without getting overwhelmed or making a commitment.

Siri, which debuted last week, is surely the first iPhone app that's the commercialized result of a multimillion-dollar Defense Department research project. It's a "virtual personal assistant" that uses voice recognition, your GPS location, and links to local information and services to respond to requests you speak into an iPhone 3GS. 

You can ask Siri to call you a taxi, or to reserve a table at the best nearby sushi joint, or to tell you who's playing at a local concert venue. The voice-recognition part works just about perfectly. And it all feels like a sneak preview of how we'll get and use information in the future, even though I'm occasionally disappointed by the results (Siri occasionally recommends local businesses based on skimpy data.)

Got any other Google alternatives that you find essential? Leave a comment and let us know about them.

Harry McCracken blogs at Technologizer, his site about personal technology. He's also the former editor in chief of PC World. Follow him on Twitter as @harrymccracken