The major search engines, along with most of their competitors, use a linear type of search results. The user simply types a search term, which promptly displays a linear listing of results, with little indication of how those results displayed are connected to each other. Many of the results on these traditional search engines are not necessarily the “best” for the user’s inquiry, as there are a variety of “SEO” or “Search Engine Optimization” tools and utilities designed to influence the search engines to manipulate the displayed results. The websites that used “SEO” appear higher up on the list than those that did not, an important and valuable consideration because most users do not scroll past the first few results that are displayed.
Many people are very visual, in that they may better comprehend data and information if presented in a logical graphic format showing interactions and relationships; a new search engine service instaGrok does precisely that. Given a search term, www.instagrok.com  displays a graphical representation of the results, clearly showing the relationships between the results, allowing the users to better find the results they seek. According to the instaGrok website, “InstaGrok presents each topic as an interactive visual interface, allowing the user to quickly grasp important concepts, key facts and relationships.” The term “grok” may appear to be some onomatopoeia from “Star Trek,” but it actually has a definition, according to the instaGrok website, “grok (v): to understand thoroughly and intuitively.”
Unlike the more traditional search engines, instaGrok filters the results based on a selectable “Difficulty Level” slider on the top of the results page that coincides with the academic level of the user, ranging from a basic elementary school level (left on the slider bar), to a high school level (middle), to a college or professional level of content (slider to the right). Graphically, this slider displays from “ABC’s blackboard” to an Einstein caricature, to indicate the level of the display. InstaGrok sees itself as both a search engine and an educational tool with features beneficial to individuals at all levels as well as features geared to classroom and academic use.
Like the more mainstream search engines, instaGrok can quickly find information on any topic. The instaGrok graphical display shows relational results from Web pages, images, videos, and forums, but unlike its competitors, filters out spam, shopping sites, profanity and pornography.
As an experiment, I entered several search terms into the instaGrok search box to examine the results. I entered “Lamar Institute of Technology,” which promptly displayed a graphical representation of the results, looking somewhat like an atomic structure or solar system; instaGrok calls this a “concept cloud.” In the most basic view (Difficulty Slider to the left), “Lamar Institute of Technology” was in the center or nucleus, and radiating from it were 10 “satellites,” each with terms such as “train,” “review,” “college,” “service,” “program” and “school.” Clicking on the displayed term “train” opened a subset indicating some of the programs, costs, scholarship information, and other training information. On the right side of the window are a series of headers displaying key facts, websites, videos, images and other links. Sliding the “Difficulty Slider” to the center (high school level) and then to the right (academic) displayed a similar number of satellite topics, but with greater detail and complexity as the slider was moved.
Clicking on the “Websites” button on the right side of the page opens a new display in a chart format with the headings “Like,” “Preview,” “Difficulty” and “Concept Cloud.” In the “Like” column are two small icons, a push pin and a trash can; the push pin icon is to “pin” the results in a registered version (details below), while the trash can might be used to hide that particular selection. The “Preview” column provides a summary of the content included in each Website, while the “Difficulty” column utilizes an icon to show the reading level of the particular websites similar to the icons on the “Difficulty Slider,” with an “ABC blackboard” indicating that the Web site results are appropriate for elementary school level, a graduation cap and diploma indicates high school level content, and Einstein indicates college level content. The “Difficulty Slider” controls the levels of content displayed on this page. The “Concept Cloud” graphically displays how a particular website is linked to other websites.
While the initial search results are displayed graphically, on the top of the graphics display is a “Journal” tag, which when opened, appears to be a word processor like display, with common word processor controls and features. This journal feature allows the user to compile or report on what is found in the search process. Anyone can use the journal feature, printing or e-mailing the journal contents, but registration is required in order to save a journal on the instaGrok server.
InstaGrok offers four levels of service, two of which are totally free, and two of which are paid and intended for classroom or other academic use. The two free levels of service are “Anonymous” and “Registered” and differ in the number and level of services available. The free Anonymous level is available to everyone, and does not require any registration; instaGrok simple says, “Just use it!” Anonymous users get the visual (graphical) interface, key facts, websites, quizzes, glossary, videos and images, and can use the adjustable “Difficulty Slider.” The free “Registered User” level adds the ability to customize and share the graphical concept maps, and save search history and journals. In the headings on the right side of the page is an additional listing for registered users, “My Pins,” which stores Web links “pinned” (selected) from the websites displayed.
There are two paid versions of instaGrok intended for teachers and classroom use at all levels, and these paid versions are each $35 per calendar year. These paid “Classroom” and “Edmodo” versions add a “Teacher Dashboard,” suppress any advertising (no ads appear on these paid versions), enhanced “safe content” displays, and priority technical support. The “Teacher Dashboard” allows the teacher to monitor the search results and progress of the students, view student journals, and evaluate results from the quizzes integrated into the search function and displayed on the right side of any search results. The “Edmodo” level of registration integrates instaGrok into the established and popular Edmodo teacher – student collaboration software already used by many teachers.
InstaGrok is an interesting alternative to the more traditional search engines, while it also integrates well into academic environments at all educational levels. The graphical interface takes some minimal experience to become familiar with it, but is easy to master. For those looking for a change from the major search engines, instaGrok is worthy of a try.