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Sympatico search analysis is a major Canadian ISP and Web site, owned at the outset by a consortium of provincial and territorial telephone monopolies. (Sympatico is now 92% owned by a unit of BCE Inc., the conglomerate that owns Bell Canada, the main telco in Ontario and Quebec, and 8% by Aliant, the Atlantic Canada telco.) The services boasts around 600,000 subscribers in Canada and is analogous to Web services run by other countries' national telcos, like Wanadoo in France or BigPond in Australia, operated by France Telecom and Telstra, respectively.

One complaint voiced by Ian Austen in his Canadian Business article (dated 1999.11.26) concerned Sympatico's lack of a search engine, comparing Sympatico with Austen has a point: There is no Sympatico-branded search engine, but, as anyone with real Internet experience will know, re-reinventing the wheel in searching is unnecessary, and anyway, Yahoo's search isn't exactly the gold standard anymore.

I took Austen's remark to refer to the search offered by Quebecor as a Yahoo licensee, since Quebecor's and sites are recognized as Sympatico's nominal competitors. But how good is's search engine? How good is Sympatico's? And finally, how good are the many other search options now available?

I performed an easy test. I devised six Canadian-specific topics to search. Replicating real-world use, these weren't perfectly-formed search queries. The topics were:

  1. nisga treaty (note the misspelling of Nisga'a)
  2. giant mine explosion (note the lack of capital G, which does make a difference here)
  3. voisey's bay (deliberately vague; most people entering this term will be interested in the proposed mine at Voisey's Bay, but not everyone will type in such a precise query)
  4. poutine
  5. luc plamondon (the Quebec lyricist)
  6. winnipeg arson (a difficult query: There may be few Web sites, as opposed to news articles, on that topic)

Search engines return different hits according to their structure. Yahoo, the Open Directory Project, and Oingo return categories or (in Oingo's case) meaning hits as prime results, with brute searching of Web pages a secondary result. A search was judged a success in those cases if it immediately produced a correct category or meaning hit; rankings for these three engines are thus Yes/No, and the raw Web hits were ignored. For other search sites (Sympatico's default,, set to search only *.ca sites, plus Google and Fast), the quality of returned hits was rated on a scale from poor to fair to OK to good to excellent. (Those are my opinions. Your mileage may vary.) Google Oingo Fast
Category match? Results Results Category match? Results Category match?
nisga treaty No OK Excellent No OK No
giant mine explosion No Poor Poor No Poor No
voisey's bay No OK OK No OK No
poutine Yes OK Excellent No Excellent No
luc plamondon No Poor Excellent No Excellent No
winnipeg arson No Poor Poor No Poor No

Country-specific searching

The suggestion seems to be that Quebecor is doing OK as a Yahoo licensee for two reasons: Canadian-specific category matches and raw searching. But none of the category-based search engines did an acceptable job returning hits on these six Canadian topics. Maybe we can forgive Google and Oingo, since they're American, but is supposed to be adept at returning truly useful Canadian results. Perhaps Quebecor has quietly conceded that its current human-categorized Canadian search results need improvement, since in October 1999 posted a job ad for a Canadian-content Web-surfer, albeit based in Santa Clara.

But the idea that Yahoo's country-specific searches are reputable needs more investigation. In my experience, having used many national Yahoos for years, results are usually quite poor. I did a quickie test at for three Australia-specific topics. Then, just for comparison, I queried Google. (Same standards as before: Yes/No for category results with Yahoo vs. quality of results with Google.) Google
Category match? Results
dreamtime No Poor
Hunters & Collectors (the rock band) Yes, but the listing links only to a piddling Yahoo discography OK
republicanism No Good


Searching at both and Sympatico isn't as good as it could be. Sympatico should pursue licensing deals with the better search engines, namely the Open Directory Project, for which the basic license is free of charge, and Google, which has already produced customized subsets for the U.S. government and Linux resources.