Space shuttle Columbia disaster - how search engines reacted

 by Martin Belam, 1 February 2003

Altavista in the UK put a link to their news service on their homepage: "Space shuttle: latest news on the tragedy."

This was the most marked effort of the non-portal search engines. However at the time I checked, 22:27 UK time, the results were ranking the BBC's talking point page, with mostly UK citizens sending in messages of condolence, above George W Bush's statement. And the top ranking news story was from Manchester Online. More recent yes, but perhaps not more important.

the news service from altavista made stories from manchester online, and the messageboards of the bbc more important than the statement from the president of the united states

Yahoo! in the dotcom flavour had a range of news headlines and a picture of the crew - and my test search for "shuttle" pulled up headlines and a link to a section covering the disaster. The Barnes & Noble advert for a book on the first 20 years of the shuttle was perhaps a little tasteless, though. In the UK it was strictly a headlines only service on the homepage.

Google had interjected news headlines in its results set, but no acknowledgement on the homepage.

On a search for "shuttle" All The Web had interjected news headlines, but was still carrying what I would consider to be inappropriate sponsored results for:

Shuttle from
Micro Direct supply high-quality computer components & systems. From the latest server cases, CPU’s and motherboards to economic solutions that will perform to specifications fit your budget.

Compare prices on shuttle at Pricerunner
Pricerunner is the UK's premier independent online and offline price comparison service. We provide you with easy online access to the information you need before purchasing goods or services.

And its related queries were not a clear understanding of the situation

space shuttle
space shuttle challenger
le shuttle
voice of the shuttle fared worse - their homepage had a picture of a shuttle launch with a link through to a news story - however, my search for "shuttle" led to a results set almost entirely populated with sponsored results for the eurotunnel, and did not manage to get one result in the top fifteen related to space travel.

search results from msn for shuttle

Why do search engines not employ editorial teams to keep better on top of this kind of breaking news situation? Their results are only undermining their credibility - at a time when there is bound to be a surge in the use of the internet to search for news, and a potential to capture audience share if they are the one to better serve users clamouring for accurate news.

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