When computer users hunt for information on the Internet, they typically turn to Google or Yahoo. When analysts working for U.S. intelligence look for documents and data stored on computers inside their own agencies, they often turn to software made by a little-known firm from Northern Virginia.
While the high-profile battle between the major search engines that scour the Web rages on, Convera Corp. quietly has carved out a niche for itself: selling software that helps U.S. and foreign intelligence agents search their databases.
CEO Patrick Condo said Convera will stay focused on government needs.
The Vienna company is like a lot of small companies that are attempting to compete with the search engine giants, not by out-Googling Google, but by offering specialized services to organizations that are drowning in electronic data.
"It is another whole level of search people don't consider," said Andy Beal, vice president of KeywordRanking.com, an Internet marketing firm. "It is a way to sell search technology piecemeal rather than mass branding. There are comparatively few companies doing it well."
From the FBI to the CIA to the National Security Agency, and from the Department of Homeland Security to the Pentagon, thousands of analysts use Convera's software, which bears the moniker RetrievalWare. More than a dozen foreign intelligence services use it as well.
"Who needs search more than these agencies?" asked Convera president and chief executive Patrick C. Condo in an interview. "As new foreign agencies cooperate with the U.S. in the war on terror, we are a source for products."
Convera takes a different approach to the business of online search than the major players. For starters, Google Inc. gives away its search technology in more than 100 languages and pockets hundreds of millions of dollars by selling ads. In contrast, Convera depends on getting government customers to pay for its specialized technology. Regular profits so far have been hard to come by.
Convera recently reported a $4.5 million net loss in the quarter ended Oct. 31, compared with a loss of $3.3 million in the same period last year. Revenue in the period fell from $8.7 million to $6.1 million.
The company is trying to rebound financially from years of unsuccessful efforts to expand into the business sector, Condo said. The company added too many employees in anticipation of new business and is now cutting back.
Condo said the company is beginning to regain momentum, in part because its search technology has special features not readily available elsewhere.