When managers want business information, many now routinely look on the Internet. They use search engines like Alta Vista, Excite or HotBot to find what they need. But how good are these search engines-relative to one another-at finding management information? Eric T. Bradlow and David C. Schmittlein of Wharton’s Marketing department set out to investigate that issue. They present their findings in a new study quaintly titled "The Little Engines That Could: Modeling the Performance of World Wide Web Search Engines."

Others have analyzed the performance of search engines in the past. For example, in a study published last year in Science, Steve Lawrence and C. Lee Giles studied the relative number of web sites that turned up in response to searches on various search engines. What makes the Wharton study different, however, is that, unlike previous investigations, it focuses specifically on management information. In effect, it tries to determine which of six popular search engines-AltaVista, Excite, HotBot, Infoseek, Northern Light and Lycos-might be most likely to find particular kinds of business information.

Bradlow and Schmittlein believe that using a search engine to find web pages is a little like fishing with a net. The results depend not only on the net’s size but also the area of the sea where it lands. Metaphorically, this is also true of World Wide Web search engines. Bradlow and Schmittlein tested their digital "nets" by searching for marketing phrases such as "second mover advantage," "perceived value pricing," and "umbrella branding" on various search engines, and comparing the results.

Their conclusions show that among the six search engines, Alta Vista and Northern Light were "the best single choices." For example, Alta Vista turned up 38 web pages in response to the search term "umbrella branding," while Northern Light returned 51, HotBot 21, Excite 7, Infoseek 4 and Lycos 0. Bradlow and Schmittlein discovered that Lycos offers little coverage of marketing phrases, but sometimes found web sites that did not show up in searches on other search engines. To return to the fishing metaphor, it caught some fish that other nets missed.

If this is true, which search engine should a busy, Web-savvy marketing manager use? Bradlow and Schmittlein suggest that based on their results, Alta Vista is the best single search engine choice, since in their study it found some 50% of the web sites with marketing phrases. "This is pretty good, but there is still plenty to find," they say. If someone wants to use a second engine for a follow-up search, Northern Light or HotBot are good choices. For those with more perseverance, any of Excite, Infoseek or Lycos may turn up some additional sites.

One other finding was that all six search engines together found only 89% of the relevant web sites, and missed 11%. In that regard, these little engines could-do better.