A new company called Blekko aims to help web users drill down into content using what the company calls "slashtags" - subject-specific search terms that you put at the end of your searches preceded by a slash.

The new search engine has been made available as a public beta and is now open for anyone to try. Blekko may not be a strong contender to take out search leaders Google and Bing anytime soon, but Blekko certainly takes an interesting approach that's worth a try if you're looking to customise your daily web searches.

Say you were looking for reviews about Apple's iPad. You would type into Blekko 'iPad /reviews' and your search results would list mostly reviews of the iPad from various magazines and tech blogs. If you typed in 'Obama /news' you would end up with a list of news results about the US President. By default, the '/news' slashtag is organised by most recent news items, but you can easily click on the '/relevance' slashtag at the top of the results page to have your news results about Obama organised by relevance instead.

Blekko has a variety of predefined slashtags you can use such as '/people' for a people search, '/blogs' for blog search, '/flickr' for Flickr search and so on. There are also a variety of topic slashtags such as '/basketball', '/movie-reviews' and '/android' to name a few. Finally, there are also a few slashtags called 'api' slashtags listed on the left side of the results page that use search engines from other sites. You can search Amazon products on Blekko, for example, by using the slashtag '/shopping' or YouTube with '/video'.

Personalised slashtags

The biggest limit to Blekko's slashtag approach, however, is that you can only use slashtags that have already been created. For example, I often search PC Advisor to see what coverage we've had before on a particular topic. If I were searching for iPad-related articles on Google I would just type 'iPad site:techadvisor.co.uk' and get all our iPad coverage. But when I typed, '/pcadvisor' into Blekko it had no idea what to do with that search. So if I wanted a site-specific search for PC Advisor I was going to have to get my hands dirty and create my own slashtag.

Before you can create your own slashtags you have to create a profile on Blekko. To sign up, you click on the 'login' link in the upper right corner. Blekko then asks you for basic profile information including your name, email address, personal website address, Twitter name, and gives you the option to upload a profile photo. You can also use Facebook Connect to create your account.

Once you're signed up, creating a slashtag is fairly straightforward. From your profile page, you just click on the 'create slashtag' link underneath your profile photo. Then you give your slashtag a name such as 'pcadvisor', list some keywords for your subject (I just used 'pcadvisor' again) and then enter in the sites you want Blekko to search. I only entered PC Advisor, but if I had wanted to I could have entered sister sites such as Computerworld and MacWorld.

Once you're done entering the information for your new slashtag, you hit 'create slashtag' and you're ready to go. You can choose to keep your slashtags private or share them with all Blekko users. You can also subscribe to follow slashtags other people have created. To get started, click on the 'users' tab on your profile page to see a selection of slashtags that other people have created. Once you start following someone's slashtag, it will appear in the left column of your profile and on the Blekko results page under the 'following' header. To use any of the slashtags you follow, just click on it.

Blekko says it also wants to be transparent about how it ranks websites and search terms in its results. So it has created two slashtags - '/rank' and '/seo' - to let anyone see how Blekko works. Say you wanted to know which sites Blekko deemed to be the most important when searching for Barack Obama. Just type 'Barack Obama /rank' into Blekko, and you'll see the top 20 sites that Blekko uses when delivering information about Obama.

Website owners can also see how Blekko looks at your site to improve your search engine optimisation for Blekko. You can find information such as how recently Blekko's search bots crawled your site, how many site pages the search engine has looked at, and where it has found duplicate content to what's on your site from other places on the web. One thing I didn't find in Blekko's SEO information, however, was any data about search terms that drove users to your site.

Blekko on the job

In my tests, Blekko's results pretty much gave me what I'd expect from a search engine. Blekko also provided me with search suggestions as I typed, similar to Google Suggest. If I didn't like something I found during a search, 'spam' links appear next to every result that will permanently remove a site from my future searches (login required).

If you add 'https://cdn2.techadvisor.co.uk/images' to a search you get bunch of images relating to the subject. One noticeable limitation, however, is that Blekko doesn't have a function to search for file types such as PDFs or MP3s.

The interesting thing about Blekko isn't its search results, but how you can organise those search results using slashtags. This is a different approach from Google, for example, where you have to click over to Google Images to do search exclusively for images. Creating your slashtags also lets you make your own specialised search engine for subject- or site-specific searches. Blekko takes an interesting approach to search.

If Blekko aims to be the next big thing in search, however, it has a long way to go. Many newcomers such as Cuil and Powerset (now a part of Microsoft's Bing) were never able to get much traction with the public. We'll have to see how Blekko performs over the next few months, but my guess is that if Blekko's approach to search proves to be popular Google or Microsoft will buy it up quickly.

See also: Google traffic share reaches peaks of 12 percent