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If I had to rank the se's by current relevant results:
1: AV. Extremely low spam ratio now. Results are very tight to the search. My only beef is as a search gets more complicated with more keywords, the results can stray all over the place. AV tends to fixate on one popular keyword in the search and return results from that word instead of the whole search string.
Such as; earlier I was searching for "microsoft windows 98 tooltip tweaks fixes". AV just couldn't get past the "microsoft windows" in the search string and return any results related to tooltips.
2: Pure Ink (Iwon). Hmmm. I like Ink, and this is as good as it gets.
3: Infoseek (yes). when used with the 'search within results', it is quite accurate. Unlike AV, when you drill down with more complicated searches, results become very accurate. When I couldn't find any info on my tooltips search, I went to Infoseek and drilled right down to it with search within these results.
4: Fast/AllTheWeb. A touch spammy in places, but I find their result to be a close gauge of reality.
5: Excite. Their new results are pretty good. I really like the new low key layout.
6: Lycos. Although it is rerolled Fast, it is still good.
7: Google. I don't get it. Rarely have I found anything I was looking for at Google. 9 out of 10 searches fail in frustration at the impossible task deciphing the results. The most over hyped engine I've seen. They simply don't deliver the results.
8: The also rans: Hotbot,MSN,Direct *hit, etal.
I definitely have to agree with you here. Their aggressive use of cutting edge technology has pushed them to the front of line. Everyone was worried for a while that directories like ODP would take over the industry, but I think AV has proved that spidering search engines can be as relevant (if not more relevant) and much more comprehensive than a directory.
They did step on our toes quite a few times in the process (maybe break would be a better term than step). But I think everyone's happy with the end results.
I've found the results to be less desirable for general searches, like single words or common, simple phrases. There always seem to be a few pages in the top ten that one can't imagine how they got there. The do seem less spammed out than some.
Absolutely, and you'd be surprised how few know that you can use +, -, or "" .
When AV fell apart last year, I did switch to ixquick [ixquick.com] for a while, though as a meta it is dependent on others for the algo. It still gave me the best returns using the search modifiers, but not quite as good as AV/Raging. I still switch off to ixquick if I'm coming up short on AV, but it usually just doesn't happen. Get your modifiers right, and you rarely have to go elsewhere or deeper than the first 100 listings.