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Online Search Universe Is Expanding

By Leslie Walker
The Washington Post
Thursday, October 21, 2004; Page E01

To get an idea of how hot Web search is, go talk to Raul Valdes-Perez, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who is leading a search technology start-up called Vivisimo Inc. He'll tell you that more than 50 venture capitalists have come knocking on his door since January, all seeking a chance to invest in Vivisimo, which recently launched a Web search service under the dopey name of Clusty.

"I think people are scrambling for the next leap in search," said Valdes-Perez, whose tiny company received $1 million in funding from the National Science Foundation to help develop a special, on-the-fly way of categorizing search results.

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You would think Google had a corner on search innovation, judging by the public's appetite for its stock (up more than 60 percent since Google Inc. went public in August) and the amount of publicity generated by every new feature it releases. By now, anyone with a passing interest in technology must know that Google announced a free desktop search program last week, beating mighty Microsoft Corp. to market with software that Bill Gates has been trying to rustle up for years.

But Google Desktop Search wasn't the first of its kind. Nor is Google the only company trying to make information easier to find. Many other firms have released new search services in the past year, with names like Blinkx, Snap, Jux2 and Info.com. Each offers its own innovative wrinkle: Info.com lets people run queries directly from the address line of their Web browser; Jux2 lets anyone simultaneously search two or three search services and compare results; Snap allows sorting of results by user "popularity" and "satisfaction" ratings, reflecting how many people clicked on each result and how many pages they viewed.

I have been testing these newbies to see how they stack up against Google and its chief rival, Yahoo. While none seems likely to dethrone Google, I am convinced that more people will start using a wider variety of search tools to find what they want online.

Don't get me wrong; Google Desktop Search strikes me as a fine computing companion. It's easy to use partly because its design so closely resembles Google's existing Web site. It's smart, too: In head-to-head tests with a premium, $75 desktop search tool called X1, I found Google was able to locate two to five times as many relevant documents on my computer.

Many of the new services aren't as easy to use as Google, but most offer features the search king lacks. Here's a look at some up-and-comers in search:

• Snap -- From the same folks who created Overture (the first all-advertising search engine, which Yahoo eventually bought for $1.6 billion) comes a new service called Snap. Backed by the IdeaLab, Snap went live two weeks ago and is once again trying to be different. One innovation is to incorporate user behavior into search results to create special rankings (such as "satisfaction" and "popularity") and let people sort results based on those rankings. Another is making Snap's internal operations transparent to visitors. It publicly reveals, for example, the top 100 words people searched for during the past week, how many people visited the site, who the top advertisers are and how much advertisers are paying to display their ads. The massive data dump is partly designed to complement Snap's advertising model, which also is different, letting merchants choose from a variety of payment options, including paying only when customers buy something.

• Copernic -- Copernic Technologies Inc. this week released an updated version of its free desktop software, which lets people search their computers for an assortment of files, including music and photos. The toolbar it installs also lets you search the Web. I found its searching menu as easy and simple as Google's. I especially liked its preview feature, which shows the content of any file without requiring you to open the document or launch the associated program. Copernic did a superb job helping me sift through my massive photo collection.

• Info.com -- This Web-only meta-search service officially launched this week after six months of beta testing. Like many of the new services, it doesn't try to crawl the entire Web or index it, which Google does. It licenses results from other search engines and sites, then sifts through them in ways it hopes will prove useful. In addition to collecting Web results from 14 search engines, it displays news articles from Topix.net, product prices from Shopping.com and, coming soon, auction results from eBay. Info.com also offers a novel shortcut -- the ability to enter a query directly into the address bar of Internet Explorer. To find items relating to "gangrene," for example, type gangrene.info.com into your browser and a results page will come up directly, without requiring a visit to Info.com.

• Clusty -- Clusty's claim to fame is how it organizes search results into categories, presented as folders on the left side of the screen. Founder Valdes-Perez compares its automated categorization scheme to how bookstores and libraries organize books. Today's Web, he notes, mainly organizes results by popularity rankings, which would be like organizing a bookstore by the popularity of each title. Clusty does not crawl the entire Web; it pulls in data from partners. It has a nice customization feature that lets people decide which search sources they want to appear as tabs on the home page, including blogs, eBay and "gossip," which pulls stories from tabloids and magazines.

• Blinkx -- This is one of the more ambitious new utilities. It requires a free download, and it is designed to help you search your computer and the Web. Trouble is, Blinkx asks you to do too much work to index your files. I found the menus too complicated and disliked the way it displays file summaries in pop-up windows. Moreover, I couldn't get the program to work consistently on my test computer.

• Specialty Search -- All kinds of narrowly focused search services are popping up. Consider The Engineering Web, which lets people search for technical and engineering information. Or CampaignSearch.com, which uses speech analysis software to let people search audio and video broadcasts from news and political Web sites, then click to play the related segment.

While these newcomers may not be destined to be verbs like Google, they do suggest that the titans of the Web search industry have no monopoly on innovation.

Leslie Walker's e-mail address is walkerl@washpost.com.


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