Search Is On

The search-engine world is changing everything, from how your company markets and advertises to how your employees create and share information.

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Google’s success is being challenged by other large companies, mainly Yahoo and Microsoft, and to a lesser extent Ask Jeeves, AOL, and Amazon. And then there are the smaller companies.

Unlike Google, neither Microsoft nor Yahoo is primarily a search company. Microsoft, of course, is the leading maker of PC software, with a virtual lock on the PC operating-system and office-applications markets, while Yahoo operates the leading Web portal, attracting nearly 275 million visitors a month.

To catch up and compete with industry-leading Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have relied on a combination of acquisitions and in-house development. Yahoo’s buying spree includes Inktomi (one of the original search pioneers), AltaVista (another early search engine), Overture (a leader in commercial search services), and Kelkoo (a European comparison-shopping engine). More pointedly, earlier this year Yahoo severed its ties with Google, which had supplied the actual search-engine component on Yahoo’s site, and instead rolled out its own search algorithm.

Microsoft, meanwhile, has signaled its seriousness by creating a vice president of search position and developing a line of search-related products and services incorporating its own algorithmic search engine. Among those now being tested are automated services to capture news (tentatively to be called MSN Newsbot), Web logs (tentatively MSN Blogbot), and natural-language queries and answers (tentatively MSN Answerbot). “Consumers say that 50 percent of their search results are still not relevant,” says Karen Redetzki, an MSN product manager, “so we see a huge opportunity.”

Amazon.com, though not primarily a search company, has built its powerful E-commerce business around proprietary, and highly sophisticated, search functionality that helps shoppers find what they want fast. Its latest feature, called Search Inside the Book, lets visitors use a search engine to peer inside the pages of more than 100,000 books. Amazon is also working to compete in two new areas: licensing and comparison shopping. In late 2003 it announced A9, a separately run subsidiary that will develop E-commerce search tools for use by both Amazon and licensees; the company launched its beta site in April. And a year ago, it formed Amazon Services to license its search technology to other E-commerce sites. Customers include Target, Toys “R” Us, and the National Basketball Association’s online store.

But Exhibit A in the case that search is still very much an evolving market may well be Ask Jeeves. The company was founded in 1996, nearly disappeared during the dot-com bust, and was revived in 2001 thanks to, oddly enough, the acquisition of other search-related companies and the sale of part of its business to, you guessed it, a search company (of sorts, see below). With 28 million visitors monthly, Ask Jeeves is not putting the scare in Google just yet. But its CEO, Steve Berkowitz, sees an opportunity to compete via technological differentiation. Unlike other search sites, Ask Jeeves allows visitors to type in natural-language queries — for example, “What’s the weather in San Francisco?” — in addition to keyword queries. Citing surveys that show the average Web visitor uses 2.5 search engines a month, Berkowitz says, “Our opportunity is to become the only viable alternative to the others.”

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