The best thing about the Internet is the amount of information it contains, and the worst thing about the Internet is the amount of information it contains. Information on just about anything is out there - but the problem is finding it.
Given the wealth of information available, it's hardly surprising that the most popular sites aren't the Star Trek site or those with popular shareware, but the search engines. Without them, tracking down information on the Net would become nearly impossible.
In the early days, search engines were simple sites with little more than lists of links. Now they're much more sophisticated, with spiders that search the Net, classification systems and high-powered database engines driving them. And they're big business too - the published rate card for the Global Online Directory (GOD) quotes monthly charges of between #125 and #14,000, depending on the online placement of your ad.
With large amounts of money at stake, it's no surprise there are a lot of people jostling for position in the market. And it's not just an American market either - there are several native search engines in the UK, including Yahoo UK & Ireland, GOD, UK Search, Apollo and UKplus. While Yahoo is an offshoot of the American search site, the others are all home-grown operations, but that's not to say they all have the same emphasis. Within the UK market, there are many approaches to searching, reflecting some differing views on the way the Internet is used and how it will develop.
When it comes to searching, Yahoo is one of the best-known names. Yahoo UK & Ireland provides access to all the information you can find with Yahoo US, but also flags UK and Irish sites at the top of each list, making it easier for people to find information that's relevant to them.
Focusing on needs
Ralph Averbuch, Yahoo UK Producer, explains the reasoning behind this approach. "It's important to focus on people's needs - both demographic and geographic. From the start, we always took account of the need to cater for individuals, so what we have is the full wealth of Yahoo, but we draw to the surface all of the sites that are relevant to the UK and Ireland."
He further explains: "If you're interested in buying a car, you don't want a list of all the sites on the Web that aren't close to you. But once you've bought the car from info you've gleaned from the Web, and you're perhaps looking for information on repairing it, then you'll be looking for a site that specialises in that model. Frankly, you won't want to find that on a separate search service, because that kind of information doesn't need to be tied to a geographical location."
The approach taken by other search sites is different. UKplus was launched in January this year by Associated Electronic Publishing (AEP), which is an offshoot of the media group that publishes The Daily Mail. Like Yahoo, it lists sites in categories under a range of headings, but that's where the similarity ends. UKplus is probably unique in that it uses journalists to review all the sites that are featured.
Quality, not quantity
Lee Thompson, AEP's Marketing Manager, says: "We direct people to the best published content on the Web - that's where we add value. We are comprehensive, but we only host quality sites. We don't believe there's much need in hosting sites that don't add value." He adds: "The site has to be of interest to UK users. We hope to instill in users the confidence that with our service they will get quality sites and will get that information quicker."
But Apollo, one of the longest established search engines, takes yet another approach. Rather than providing extracts from the pages or independently reviewed sites, Apollo concentrates on providing information in a different way. It's certainly the most localised of the search systems, even allowing you to specify that you want companies in a particular town or borough.
But unlike automatic search systems, Apollo relies on submissions and tends to concentrate on business content. It also allows you to achieve a more prominent position in the results by paying, an approach to raising revenue which proprietor Gordon Wilson believes will still be viable if people switch to querying sites with intelligent agents rather than visiting them themselves.
But the most surprising business proposition for a search engine comes from Eddie Cheng, New Media Services Director of Yellow Pages, which is home to the Yell Web site. "We don't see it as an area we want to compete in."
Instead, Cheng sees the search facility as simply one part of the whole site, which includes an A to Z of businesses and the Electronic Yellow Pages. It's this, he believes, that's key to helping people find what they want when they don't know what to search for in the first place.
The Yellow Pages brand name places them in a strong position to do what Cheng believes is most important - creating new Web content for advertisers. "We think the market is getting very buoyant. A lot of people see it as something inevitable. You might as well join it now rather than get left behind.
"Most Web site creation companies are not household names, or they may be big advertising agencies. A lot of small advertisers will find it difficult to talk to those people. We bridge that gap," he claims.
So, if the future for Yellow Pages is to create Web content, and to use the search pages as a way to access that content, what of the other players?
Custom home pages like My Yahoo are already popular with many Net users, allowing them easy access to the information they want. Averbuch thinks there will be more personalisation in future as software and infrastructure improve, including the use of "push" technologies, which can automatically bring new or changed sites to the attention of Web users. Future possibilities include the delivery of other types of data, complementing the textual information returned by present search systems.
It's an experience
The next update to UK Search, due this summer, will make use of Java to enhance the searching. While that sort of technology isn't ruled out by Yahoo, it's not essential either, says Averbuch. "I think it's important that we try to make sure that the maximum number of people have the best experience with Yahoo," a view echoed by UKplus, whose site aims to give everyone a quality experience.
While technology has its place, localisation is important at UKplus too, and Thompson sees that being extended with custom information presented to users as they sign in. "People talk about channels of information. I think search engines in the future will have a more channel approach, where you will only get information that's relevant to you. I think it'll be like personal TV."
With such widely differing strategies, it's not possible to declare a winner in the UK search engine market, at least for the time being. The current crop offer very different services, a different range of extras and add-ons for users and diverse business strategies.
For companies like Yahoo, searching is its raison d'etre, but for others like Yell, it's the large number of hits - 380,000 page views per week. The consequent potential for advertising sales make it a logical first step in building a larger Internet-based business.
For AEP, it's partly about building a new brand in a new medium, much as Digital's AltaVista search engine spawned a range of other Internet products. The biggest question is whether there are enough advertisers, and that's something only time will tell.
For more info, why not try ...
If you want to go further afield and search the big-hitter US-based search services, we recommend you try the following Web sites:
Although it is UK-based, this search system covers the whole world. It's based on submissions rather than research and concentrates on business sites and a classified ads section. There's a two-level hierarchy to the searches and you can specify small geographical areas.
DejaNews (newsgroup search)
Filez (software search only)
Hotbot (from HotWired)
Ultimate Magazine Database
Global Online Directory (GOD)
GOD is another UK-based global directory. It's based on a hierarchal directory with a search option, but includes multiple pages on the same site in the hits. The results include a brief summary of the sites.
This site contains specialised reviews of sites worldwide that have been chosen as being relevant to people in the UK. It is based on a hierarchal directory with a search option and also includes chat and meeting areas as well as up-to-date news.
This is a traditional search engine that indexes sites in the (.uk) domain. Results returned from the search give text from the Web pages if the full format is selected.
Yahoo UK & Ireland
This search engine is based on the original Yahoo hierarchal directory, with UK and Irish sites presented at the top of the listings in each section. Searches can be restricted to UK sites only, and the results returned include only complete sites rather than the pages that make them up. Headline news is also provided.
This is a searchable hierarchal directory with an A to Z of business sites, plus features including a film guide and access to the Electronic Yellow Pages. A single line summary of sites is provided.
Excite - the new kid on the block
"I have an enormous goal. I want people in their daily life to think of Excite as the place to search, find information and have fun," so says Jed Simmons, Managing Director of Excite Europe. Simmons, a native New Yorker, is busy readying Excite as a service in its own right in the UK, France and Germany. He is aware that some of the competition (Yahoo and Infoseek) are already here and that Excite must raise its profile now, before its launch this month.
Simmons seems like the kind of person that adapts easily to the evolving nature of new media like the Internet. He previously supervised a cartoon studio for Hanna-Barbera in Los Angeles and set up the Cartoon Network for Turner Entertainments Networks (TEN). He is a firm believer that the programming model used in television applies to the Web. "It's simple and people understand it. We'll certainly be applying it to Excite where appropriate."
Simmons is planning to offer a service (www.excite.co.uk) this month that will encourage users to find news and create their own paper along the lines of a "Daily Me", using the news tracker and live services currently available (www.excite.com), but without a European bias.
To create that European bias Simmons has hired a team of seven, which he says will grow as needed. He even envisages editorial offices in Germany and France of one or two staffers. Simmons believes it's important to develop content on the ground. "Our plan is to learn from the experience Excite has had in the US (200 staff based in San Francisco) and to tailor the service for each market. That may mean developing unique services in a particular country."
So far he doesn't envisage anything particularly different for the UK other than ensuring that Excite technology takes people to relevant UK and European content and US sites, "where appropriate".
So what has the company learned so far? Simmons says it is learning to move from being a technically driven operation to being a consumer service. "We want people to feel good about using the search. We want them to learn new things." One of the ways Excite currently does this is by offering what it calls "tours", which guide the user through a search of particular subjects. The company will also be offering celebrity tours, for example, "Madonna's tour on baby sites".
Unlike some companies immersed in Web technology, Excite is also thinking the issue through in terms of life not connected with the Web, what Simmons calls thinking about life off the Web and how Excite can help people with their interests and needs. His key aims are to be the best search engine, interact with consumers, become a great brand, and have the right partners.
Simmons says the UK strategy will be defined by content, creation and alliances with other players. Most recently, Excite has teamed with Virgin Net to offer a search service, and a deal with Netscape will be unveiled when Netscape's European mirror sites become operational.
A bright future
With alliances with AOL, Microsoft, AT&T, MCI and WebTV in the US, industry watchers are predicting a healthy profile for Excite as it ramps up its services this year. At this time, it needs all the positive analysis it can muster as it is seeks to raise around $30 million in a secondary stock offering. This will consist of 2.3 million shares.
Excite rounded off last year with a cash balance of $22.3 million, down $8.1 million from $30.4 million at the end of the third quarter ended 30 September.
Excite went public on 3 April, 1996, selling two million shares at $17 a share. It lost $43.1 million in 1996 on $14.8 million in revenue. (www.excite.com).
Nigel Whitfield is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at ([email protected]).
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