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The Web: Search engine wars flare online

By
GENE J. KOPROWSKI, United Press International

A weekly series by UPI examining the global telecommunications phenomenon known as the World Wide Web.

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CHICAGO, May 26 (UPI) -- Search engine developers, such as Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft, are aggressively seeking new strategies -- and technologies -- that will give them even a slight edge in the struggle for dominance in what is becoming the Internet's most glamorous niche, experts told United Press International.

For a number of years, Google has been the leading brand name in the search field, prospering from its primary innovation, the page rank algorithm, which measures the value of Internet sites based on the amount of traffic they generate.

"Others first had the idea of making Web search a giant popularity contest," said Wade Roush, senior editor of Technology Review magazine, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "And Google came up with a really amazing innovation that did just that."

Then Microsoft said it was going to build a search function into the next version of its Windows operating system. So Google, along with long-time rival, Yahoo!, responded by announcing a series of new search inventions, seeking to establish a buzz of enthusiasm over their products not seen in perhaps several years.

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"Right now, in the search engine space, it is pretty much a dead heat," said Jack Hughes, founder and chairman of TopCoder Inc., a technical recruiting firm in Glastonbury, Conn., that places programmers and developers at technology companies. "There's not a big difference in quality. What it comes down to is an issue of the future -- who dominates what happens next."

Seeking to capture the public's imagination, Google in late March -- just before announcing its plans for an Initial Public Offering on Wall Street -- debuted personalized search services.

"We can deliver search results tailored to your interests, or promptly e-mail you new information on any topic," Larry Page, co-founder of Google, said in a statement.

Not to be outwitted, Yahoo! released new, algorithm-based search technology, and rolled it out this spring.

"Within the next few weeks and months, consumers will continue to see improvements to Yahoo's search technology, in addition to advancements in search personalization and other user features," Jeff Weiner, senior vice president of the search division of Yahoo!, said in a statement.

Some analysts reckon the heightened competition -- and breathtaking announcements of new, differentiating technologies -- is a throwback to the so-called browser wars of the early 1990s, when Microsoft battled Netscape to emerge as the leading player for the Web browser.

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"Some people definitely have their affinities," Tony Frazier, senior vice president of marketing at iPhrase Technologies Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., told UPI. "There are die-hard Googlers, just like there were die-hard enthusiasts for Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Explorer."

The pending Google IPO also is adding to the cachet of the search field, as customers ooh and ah over the fact the Google's thirtysomething founders are soon to be boy billionaires. Still, technology experts say, Internet searching sometimes still can be quite frustrating.

"It's something that affects everybody," said Kas Kasravi, an EDS fellow with Electronic Data Systems in Plano, Texas, the technology firm founded years ago by H. Ross Perot.

"Searching is inherently difficult, because of the ambiguities of language," he told UPI. "How you phrase something might change the meaning of what is said. When we look for something online, it is the intent and content of the words that are key, so if you ask the wrong question, you get the wrong answer."

Kasravi said the search engine players -- along with his own company -- are searching for a solution to that problem.

There are a number of possible solutions, including making searches more contextual. This includes programming a search engine to know who the primary user is likely to be, say, a scientist or an engineer.

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"It's an interesting dilemma," Kasravi said, "searching for the right information by saying as little as possible."

Search engines designed for a specific audience would have certain facts in mind when looking over the Web for information, such as the fact that the user holds a doctorate in physics or chemistry.

"With these kinds of sites, they search for specific, scientific information only," Kasvari said. "If you enter the word 'pig,' it will know you are looking for a form of ferrous material, not for an animal."

The problem with making general search engines perform like these specialty sites is consumers will have to give up a lot of privacy -- entering their educational level, age and the like, in an anonymous site online, just to obtain more specific results, he said.

Advertisers have created their own solution to the problem. All-ad search engines -- like the Yellow Pages used offline, in the temporal world -- are taking customers through several discrete steps of searching before letting them see the final search result.

"For consumers, the problem is that if they type in 'Honda' they will get cars, as well as outboard engines and other products Honda makes," Darrin Rayner, vice president of e-commerce sales and online marketing at Verizon in Dallas told UPI. "For a car advertiser, they don't want someone coming to their site who is an outboard motor buyer."

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This approach, embraced by Verizon's SuperPages.com, instead creates a taxonomy, or ranking of categories, based on search words entered by consumers.

"You don't get listings back right away if you type in 'Honda,'" Rayner explained. "We present categories first, like automobiles -- or new cars and used cars, or lawnmowers, or boat engines. Then you see what is relevant to you, and drill down further. It's a filter in navigation."

With all this competition in the search space, Hughes, the technical recruiter, said the demand from search companies for top technical talent is insatiable.

"These top companies are looking for the best people, which distinguishes them from the mediocre companies, where demand for talent has fallen off," Hughes said.

Though the battle is on again on the Internet -- with the recession and dampened consumer spirits after Sept. 11, 2001, now in the past -- the outcome probably will not be the same as it was nearly 10 years ago when the browser wars raged online.

"In the browser wars, the loser went home," said David Fry, who holds a doctorate from Harvard University, and is president of an Internet development company in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"This time, Google, and Microsoft and others will survive," he told UPI. "Everyone will just change their business model to do that."

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Gene Koprowski covers telecommunications technology and markets for UPI Science News. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

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