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Searchin' safari

As Google readies its initial public stock offering, the question of who will be tomorrow's premier search site looms.

By DAVE GUSSOW
Published August 9, 2004

Many people Google their Internet searches today, but will they Google tomorrow? Maybe they'll Vivisimo, Eurekster or Grokker.

Though none has quite the ring of Google as the trendy verb it has become, they too are Internet search engines with promising technology. And someday, one could stake a claim as the No. 1 search destination.

"One of the things that spurred these companies on is the success Google had," said Gary Price, news editor at Search Engine Watch, an industry newsletter. "What Google does so well, and maybe better than any company I've ever seen, is that they're brilliant at marketing. They're incredible at building a brand."

Google grabbed attention because its searches got better results than with other engines. Over the past five years since it dropped the "beta" test label from the site in September 1999, the company has added features, built a legion of followers and become the hot tech company, even during the dot-com meltdown.

Now Google is in the spotlight again as it prepares for its initial public stock offering. It's getting attention not only because it's one of the first big tech offerings in recent years, but also because of the unusual auction process it has set up for the stock sale.

But the company's well-polished image hasn't prevented problems with the IPO. The auction, expected to start this week, apparently is going to be delayed, according to various news reports, because of problems preparing institutional investors for the sale and an investigation by California security regulators over unregistered shares Google issued.

In addition, the prolonged hype, a target range of $108 to $135 a share and the intricacies of the bidding process have cooled some of the interest.

Some mutual funds and hedge funds told the Wall Street Journal that they might skip the auction and see what happens to the price later. Even individual investors seem to be backing off.

"There's just been a lot of roadblocks for the average investor to participate," said Matthew Crowder, who runs the Google IPO Central Web site, which is not affiliated with Google. "A lot of them gave up on the whole process."

Crowder, 29, of Albuquerque, N.M., saw visits to his site drop from 70,000 in the spring to about 45,000 in July. The site features news stories about the IPO, as well as message boards. But posters have gone from a sense of anticipation to more skepticism.

Of course, it's a far different stock market from when Google first burst on the scene in 1999. The Dow closed at 10,707.70 on Aug. 9, 1999, on its way to a record high of 11,722.98 in January 2000. The Nasdaq Composite Index was at 2,518.98 before peaking at 5,048.62 in March 2000. The Dow closed Friday at 9,815.62; and Nasdaq, at 1,776.89.

It's also a different world in search engines. Five years ago, sites such as Alta Vista and Lycos were among the heavy hitters. Today, they've fallen from their lofty perch, pushed aside by Google. Indeed, Lycos Inc. is being sold for $95-million just four years after it had been purchased for $12.5-billion.

"One of the things with search, it's still so young and still volatile," said Chris Winfield, a member of the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization and president of 10e20, a search engine marketing company in New York. "There could be a new company (dominating) tomorrow."

Some things are the same. Users still get thousands or millions of hits on searches, many of them not relevant. So with Internet search far from a perfect science, the quest continues for technology that will give people more of the information they want, and increase visitors and advertising dollars to the winners.

And the money to be made on search is substantial. Google reported earnings of $79.1-million on revenue of $700.2-million in the second quarter. So Google competitors, both big and small, are not sitting still.

Microsoft is investing a reported $100-million to beef up its search engine, and Yahoo has added new features and services, including Yahoo Local last week that takes search from a worldwide exercise to a neighborhood.

And Yahoo is one to watch, Winfield said. "In my eyes, they have the most important things in search: personalization and localization," he said. "It's why I've been asserting that Yahoo has a big advantage over Google."

Personalization means the search engine remembers your patterns and interests. For example, Amazon.com suggests items you might be interested in based on previous visits.

It also can mean setting preferences to narrow searches. At Yahoo's SmartShop, people can determine what they're looking for in items. For MP3 players, users can move sliding bars to determine price, song capacity, brand and size, then see the results.

Eurekster remembers the sites you like, but adds a community element by letting friends "share" results of common searches.

Localization means narrowing the focus to a neighborhood level. Google Local came out before Yahoo's, but Yahoo is getting more buzz. Both let users do a keyword search with an additional box for an address, city or ZIP code. In addition, online Yellow Pages companies have been enhancing the presence of small businesses.

So if you're looking for charter fishing in Clearwater, you'll get a list of local boats at Yahoo and Google. Dan Hood, owner of Daisy Mae Fishing Co. in Clearwater, advertises on Google but likes the way Yahoo results are displayed.

Hood began his Web site in 1998 and says it accounts for about 30 percent of his business. It comes up on Yahoo searches because he has studied how to keep up its profile for engines. But it's hit or miss on Google.

"Google is much more difficult for a Web site to come up on regular rankings," Hood said. "You're almost forced to advertise."

Good placement is critical, Hood says, because most people won't go more than two or three pages deep into the results.

Industry watcher Winfield doesn't expect to see personalization and localization refined for another 18 months or so, but they're not the only emerging trends in search.

Vivisimo "clusters" results. So if you search for Florida, it displays a list of topics such as Government, University, Vacation and Hotels in a column so the user can go directly to the subject of interest.

Vivisimo also has a preview feature that allows people to look at a site while still on the search page. That avoids going back and forth between various Web sites and the search results.

SpeechBot scans audio and video by keyword, taking search beyond just text. Grokker "maps" results in a visual display of spheres that list categories. Ask Jeeves has tweaked its service, so if you ask a question, it will not only provide links, but also give an answer. It also will provide a local service starting next month.

In addition, there has been an explosion of search engines for specialty topics, Price of Search Engine Watch says, and more access to free databases, such as the Librarians' Index to the Internet. "The challenge is that people just need to know that they're out there," he said.

Google isn't sitting by idly, as witnessed by the rush of interest for its Gmail e-mail service this year. It will keep trying new services, and it will keep up its marketing.

"How Google changes when it becomes a public company, if they change, is something we'll be watching very closely," said Price, noting that it will have more people, from stockholders to advertisers, to keep happy. "Trying to be all things to all people is often a challenge."

- Information from Times wires was used in this report. Dave Gussow can be reached at gussow@sptimes.com or 727 771-4328.

On the Web:

Amazon A9: www.a9.com

Ask Jeeves: www.askjeeves.com

Eurekster: www.eurekster.com

Google: www.google.com

Google IPO Central: www.google-ipo.com

Grokker: www.groxis.com

Librarians' Index to the Internet: lii.org

Search Engine Watch: www.searchenginewatch.com

SpeechBot: www.speechbot.com

Vivisimo: www.vivisimo.com

Yahoo Local: local.yahoo.com

[Last modified August 6, 2004, 17:46:20]

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