America Online Inc. yesterday launched a new Internet search service through its Netscape subsidiary, the largest step yet in its plan to offer AOL-branded Web searches across the company's properties.

"Netscape Search" is featured on the Netcenter "portal" site and the Netscape Communicator browsing software and is also available to any World Wide Web user at

AOL has been developing the service with Google Inc., a Palo Alto, Calif., search company, using the results of its year-old Open Directory Project, which has 13,000 volunteer contributors manually analyzing sites and adding information.

Company officials said AOL plans to introduce more search services on its other properties, which include CompuServe and ICQ.

Earlier this month, AOL made an agreement with Inktomi Corp. of San Mateo, Calif., to provide Web searches across the AOL network. The Inktomi agreement is separate from yesterday's announcement and is part of AOL's effort to offer Web search services to its customers.

While there are many widely used search engines, such as Yahoo, Excite and Alta Vista, AOL claims that Netscape Search will deliver more concise results than most other directories. Search engines basically make the Internet usable, scouring its vast contents for the most specific information on a company, person or travel location, then suggesting sites the user can click on.

Netscape Search results have a "freshness date" and the company says that because humans are constantly updating the sites and categories, there are few dead links that lead users to pages no longer in operation.

"We're focused on providing the most relevant results," said David Beckwith, senior director of search and directory for Netcenter. Beckwith said that the Open Directory will be "the largest edited directory on the Web by the end of the year."

Dariusz Paczuski, senior program manager, said Netscape Search will also deliver "safer" results because it sifts out pornographic material into a special adult site. He said the system makes it less likely for users to accidentally click on offensive sites.

"We've got an integrated team at AOL where we are all looking at search," said Beckwith. "We want to use these in different combinations for each brand."

Ulric Weil, an analyst with Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group Inc. in Arlington, said the announcement was "incremental," but that "we certainly can use better technologies."