Tara Calishain has authored or co-authored several books on using the Internet, including The Lawyer's Guide to Internet Research. She is the editor of ResearchBuzz, a free weekly newsletter on Internet search offerings and search engine news. Tara is also the author of LLRX Buzz, a weekly column on new web sites and services focused on the legal community.
I'm old-fashioned; I rarely use meta-search engines or offline search tools. To me they just don't have the impact of a few carefully-selected query words and the use of special syntaxes. So when I had the chance to look at Copernic Agent Professional, a desktop-based search tool, I wondered if it was going to be worth my while, if I was going to find something that would make it useful to me. The answer was yes and no. There seems to me to be one big weakness in Copernic (current news searching) but the tools offered in this release make searching in the other categories, most notably general Web searching and "ready- reference" type searching, very useful indeed.
Getting Copernic ready to go is one of the most involved processes I've seen in a long time. You'll install it, it'll ask you for a registration key, then once installed will offer to go online and check for search engine updates. Say yes, and you'll have to wait a few minutes (even on a broadband connection) after which Copernic will ask if you if you're over 13. Wait a minute. Don't you get a list of what was updated? Apparently not.
Anyway, I'm over 13 and told it so, thus beginning the registration process. Next you have to tell it whether the use of Copernic is business or personal. Then you'll be asked to provide your name and e-mail address, as well as Specify whether you want three different kinds of information/newsletters from Copernic and their partners. (Two of the boxes are pre-checked. Grr.)
After that, Copernic asks a few more demographic questions and gives you the option of integrating Copernic with IE, Windows, and Microsoft Office. Be sure to click on the + beside each item to see what you can be installed. For Internet Explorer, your options include adding a Copernic
Tool bar and adding a search feature to the right-click menu. For Windows, your options include adding a shortcut to the desktop and adding a shortcut to the quick launch toolbar. Finally, for Microsoft Office, you'll have the option of adding a search toolbar to Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, and Word (any items that you don't have installed on your computer will be grayed out.)
After you've done all that, Copernic asks you to select what categories you're planning to use. Categories include Shopping, News, The Web, and Government & Law. Again, be sure to click on the + signs next to each category so you can carefully narrow down the items in each category. Not
all subcategories are pre-checked so just because a category is checked, don't assume you're getting everything in that category. (You can always go back and change the categories in your preferences later.) Take a few minutes and set this up the way you want it; this version of Copernic offers
searching of over a thousand engines and it's easy to over search a topic.
FINALLY! You are FINISHED. Copernic configures your selections and you are off to the races. The application has a familiar setup if you've used Copernic before; the categories on the left side of the page, searches in the top middle of the page, and a list of search results below. When you click on each category you'll see a "X engines enabled" next to the Categories header. Click on that phrase to change the engines for each category. I changed the one for Web search right away -- why would HotBot be activated and Teoma and Wisenut not?
Searching is simple. Click on the subcategory in which you're interested and enter your query at the top of the page. If you double-click on the subcategory, you'll get a popup window with a query box, a category pull-down box, and an analysis option. Your options include minimal analysis
(just checking for duplicate links), intermediate (checking for duplicate and broken links, as well as checking page sizes and dates) and optimal (which checks all of the above and adds a language check, and gives the options of saving only those pages which contain the search keywords,
extracting the key concepts from pages, and saving pages for offline viewing.) An Advanced tab gives you the option of tracking searches on a regular basis, handy if you're doing periodic research on a particular title. (This feature apparently uses the Windows Task Scheduler.)
Running a search you can specify all words, any word, or exact phrase -- a bit disappointing when you're used to using a variety of special syntaxes. The actual search itself is very quick, but some of the category choices are disappointing.
For example, let's look at News. The Top News category is pretty sweet, and even includes Google News and AlltheWeb News. But where's Rocketinfo? How about AltaVista News? How about Daypop? Northern Light? These aren't obscure engines. Then there's the newspaper category. Fourteen possible engines. There are dozens if not hundreds of great searchable newspaper sites in the United States. Why are we limited to fourteen?
(Here's an idea. Since Copernic's registration process is already integrated into the setup, why not provide one more screen and ask each registering user to provide the URL of their favorite local newspaper? Copernic could quickly get a huge list of potential paper links to search, and registering users would have the satisfaction of knowing that they're getting to contribute to the development of the software.)
Copernic can give a wider range of searches for newspapers. However, they cannot control how each newspaper dates its articles. I did a search for "open source" using the newspapers option. I got results from 1996, 1999, and, of course, 2002. It made me sigh for XML or some kind of schema
that would allow newspapers to date their stories in a way a search engine or engine aggregator could understand, letting it sort results so that the most recent results come up on top. Copernic allows you sort returned results by creation dates, though I didn't find that it sorted by the dates on
the stories. I found that just running searches on the engines themselves worked better when I was looking for current stories than using Copernic.
Okay, that's enough complaining about something Copernic can't help. Let's do a search for something that doesn't count on timely results. I did a encyclopedia subcategory (14 engines) search for "bobsledding" and got 32 results almost instantly. I then ran the "optimal analysis" that checked the links and pulled relevant concepts from the text. I must say the pulling of relevant concepts worked far better than I thought I would, and made it easy to
see at a glance which search results were useful for my quest for information about bobsledding.
Single-clicking on the title of the page opens the page up in your default browser (in my case it opened in Opera with no problems.) If you like the results you've gotten from a search, you can save the pages to your hard drive. When I tried this with my bobsledding results, I found that Copernic mostly saved the pages okay but missed a couple of Yahoo advertisements. I will shed no tears.
Okay, you've got a list of results. You can open them in your browser or save the pages to your hard drive. What else? Right click in the result list to find out. You can, among other things, sort the results by eight different variables or group them in several different ways, summarize individual items, copy or delete the item, add the page to your IE favorites list, and annotate the results. You can also find keywords within the results, which took me a
little getting used to. I can see where it would come in handy, though; doing a search for bobsledding, then filtering your search for toboggan and seeing what kind of results you get. If the results aren't good, you can clear that search and try another one.
Of course, no researcher is an island. If you get a good list of results, you might want to share them with someone. With Copernic you've got the option of e-mailing the results. The e-mail list is just a list of results and links; all you need, really. I was afraid this wouldn't work for me since I use Eudora instead of Outlook, but it worked fine. I wish the title were more customized, though; the titled of the e-mailed results is "Copernic Agent Search
Results". How about putting the query in the title as well? This plain title isn't going to be very helpful if you've got to send several link lists to the same person.
As I said at the beginning of this review, I've never been a big fan of meta-search engines. I've always found them distracting to the task of getting just the right search results. Perhaps because I of that I find myself filled with mixed feelings for Copernic.
On one hand, there aren't enough news search engines and the news results that it provides are not as useful as they could be if results could truly be sorted by publication date. On the other hand, some of the other categories -- most notably the reference/FAQ type categories -- are very useful. Copernic runs the search and analyzes the link results far faster than I could do it with a browser. On one hand, I like taking advantage of search engine special syntaxes and building intricate searches that Copernic can't handle. On the other hand, I appreciate the fact that a lot of searches simply don't need the kind of power represented by extensive queries, that a couple of words or a phrase will work just fine for many queries.
Would I use Copernic for all my searching? No. It doesn't have the chops for news searching. I would almost break the news search out into another application and develop that separately. Furthermore, there are going to be occasions that I'll want to use queries that Copernic doesn't like. But at the same time if I need quick information on something, if I need a general survey on what's available, Copernic and its associated tools are really handy. I like being able to analyze links on the fly, download pages separately and view them at my leisure, and I thought the summarizer worked very well. Copernic Agent Professional won't replace all my search tools, but it's a nice addition to my toolbox.
Cost and System Requirements
Copernic Agent Professional
Operating System: Windows 95/98/Me/NT4/2000/XP with Internet Explorer 4.0
SP1 (or later)
Browser: Internet Explorer 4.0, Netscape Navigator/Communicator 4.x or 6.x,
Opera, the system default browser or another compatible browser
CPU: Pentium 120 MHz or higher
RAM: 32 MB (minimum)
Hard Disk: At least 15 MB of free disk space