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Web Search for Tomorrow

Source: Businessweek.com

 

Google's success is spurring competitors to take search technology to the next level. Here are some areas they're exploring

The glimpse into Google's financials, released on Apr. 29, reveals one certainty: There's plenty of money to be made in the search game. Silicon Valley's new favorite company is on pace to pocket over $600 million in operating income this year on revenues of $1.6 billion. And that juicy 38% margin is already attracting plenty of attention from potential rivals.

Indeed, the arena that Google dominates is now being targeted by all comers. From bigwig rivals such as Microsoft (MSFT ) and Yahoo! (YHOO ) to startups like Vivisimo and ChoiceStream, scores of companies are spending billions of dollars trying to come up with new and better ways to help people find information. The flurry of research not only poses a potential threat to Google's dominance, over the next few years it could also revolutionize how users search the Web. Here are the pivotal areas of development:

Exclusively for You
The most imminent change in search technology will likely arise from personalization -- honing results to fit a searcher's location or preferences. An astronomy buff who searches for "Saturn" would get results about the planet, for example, not the car.

Rivals Google, AOL (TWX ), and Yahoo are already jostling to offer simple customization. But if the promise of rich personalization is immense, computers are still iffy judges of human intent. And the annoyance created by wrong assumptions means such technology is likely still a year or two out.

Paving Memory Lane
Today, search engines such as Google provide a current snapshot of information and views on specific topics available on the Web. But there's no reliable way to discern how that snapshot changes over time. "Search is a great way to start," says Daniel Gruhl, chief architect of IBM's WebFountain project, which is working on a new area known as trend searching. "But it's not the way to keep you up to date, show you trends, or help you understand the world around you."

By archiving big chunks of the Internet on a regular basis, Big Blue's researchers are trying to develop a search engine capable of answering more sophisticated queries. Instead of Googling information on the new Toyota Prius, for instance, a potential buyer might ask: "How have consumer opinions of the new Toyota Prius shifted over the past six months?" The results, says IBM (IBM ), would likely be a graph or other visual interpretation of data culled by scanning everything from articles and reviews to Web logs and online forums.

But don't log on expecting to search trends anytime soon: Although IBM is already selling the technology to corporate customers such as content-management firm Factiva, which uses it in a service that tracks the reputation of corporate clients over time, widespread consumer application is still several years away.

Here, There, Everywhere
Probing the Internet is valuable. But much of what a user wants may be tucked away elsewhere -- stashed in a Word or PowerPoint file on a hard drive, or in e-mail archived on a server somewhere else. Grabbing such data isn't easy right now, but companies ranging from Lycos to Microsoft are exploring ways to dig out information from these sources with a single search tool.

Microsoft, for example, has a two-year-old project, dubbed Stuff I've Seen, that creates a searchable index of every last word that appears on a person's PC screen -- from work files to appointments to Web pages. Although no release date has been set, it's now being tested inside the company by over 1,500 employees.

Getting Better Results
The average search query contains 2.5 words, leaving plenty of room for interpretation. As a result, searches typically turn up hundreds of links, many of them irrelevant. A handful of startups, from Vivisimo to iXmatch Inc., are using so-called clustering technology that organizes several hundred search results into subject-specific folders. A search on "Jimmy Carter," for instance, might return folders such as "Nobel Prize" and "Inaugural Address." The technology is almost ready for mainstream use.

As they hit the market, the new technologies will likely make search even more indispensable to our lives -- which is one reason Google is exploring many of these technologies itself. But will the search giant and its soon-to-be investors profit from them, or will a new powerhouse emerge? Unfortunately, there's no way to Google that query.

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May. 06,  ISSUE #019
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