Way back in the day — say, a year or two ago — using search engines to research science topics was rather a crapshoot. I was an active Wikipedia writer back then, and the majority of my work was on science-related articles. And finding reliable web-based information was always challenging.
Take the article on the beautiful, endangered freshwater fish known as Asian arowanas, which is mostly my work (and I can't say I'm not proud of it). Google searches for Asian arowanas turn up mostly commercial sites and fan sites. Neither of these is a reliable source of science information: the commercial sites mix bona fide science with marketing information, while fan sites are prone to misinformation. This problem was a major hindrance to my work on the article.
Google search ranking
Now Google Search has a new feature for users signed in to their Google accounts: search ranking. (Try it.) Google says the ranking will help teach the search engine how to customize searches for you. Perhaps after some training, Google search will be less likely to turn up commercial sites and more likely to turn up useful research information.
But that will take time. In the meanwhile, two other search engines are available for people interested in finding real information on the web: hakia (still in beta) and Scirus.
Hakia, er, hakia
Hakia (whose name officially is not capitalized, but my inner English teacher just won't let me start a sentence that way) uses a new technology called semantic searching to help higher-quality, more credible sites show up higher in the search results, regardless of popularity. Other search engines, including Google, use popularity as a major criterion for search rankings; this is why SEO (search engine optimization) strategies include techniques like obtaining incoming links.
A script on the homepage allows a user to compare hakia and Google searches. I ran it for "Asian arowana." Hakia's top two sites were a fan site and a blog, while Google performed a bit better with the Wikipedia article and a commercial breeder's site. But a very significant difference between the two was visible on each page's right side: Google displayed an Adwords advertisement, while hakia showed a "hakia credible site": a journal article from the National Institutes of Health on the fish's mitochondrial genome. Hakia credible sites are those recommended by librarians, who know a thing or two about finding reliable information. Getting results like that "above the fold" is a huge advantage for the Web researcher.
Scirus is billed as being "for scientific information only." It indexes journals, scientists' web sites, and other relatively reliable sources. In this regard, it is fundamentally different from both Google and hakia, which both cover the whole Web. So I compared it to Google Scholar, which searches academic journals.
My search for "Asian arowana" on Google Scholar turned up an unadorned list of various articles. The Scirus results, on the other hand, used logos to show each result's source at a glance. It also included a tool for refining the search. Scirus makes it easier to evaluate and filter search results. Its developers obviously understand the needs of a person looking for credible science information better than Google Scholar's designers do.