Web search sites aim to keep users from 'wandering'
September 23, 1997
Web posted at: 5:21 p.m. EDT (1721 GMT)
By Greg Miller
SAN FRANCISCO -- Their mission traditionally has been to help
people find their way, but the big Internet search sites are
in the midst of a search of their own.
Still hunting for a steady source of profits, Yahoo, Excite,
Lycos, Infoseek and others are straying from their navigation
roots, creating new types of Web sites that are equipped with
features such as stock quotes, horoscopes, personalized news,
shopping, chat rooms and even e-mail.
The goal is simple: Instead of merely pointing users to other
spots on the Net, Yahoo and its rivals want to keep more of
the traffic, and the accompanying advertising dollars, to
"It's not about building the best search engine anymore,"
said Joe Kraus, who founded Excite several years ago with
four roommates from his Stanford University dorm. "It's about
redefining what it means to be an online service."
Competition heats up
But companies from other corners of cyberspace -- ranging
from giants such as Microsoft, America Online and Netscape
Communications to upstarts like Globe, Tripod and Geocities
-- have similar ambitions.
The space will get even more crowded now that CNet, the
technology news service, has launched a free online service
of its own.
With so many well-heeled players, and predictions that there
will be room for just a few to succeed, the intensity of this
competition is beginning to eclipse even that of the
ballyhooed browser wars.
"This is probably the most competitive arena on the
Internet," said Harry Fenik, vice president of Zona Research
in Redwood City, California. "They're all attempting to
create your entry point to the universe, the place where you
come to find out everything."
Advertisers want a captive audience
Navigation sites have largely been big money losers so far.
But they collect about 20 percent of online advertising
revenue, which market researcher Jupiter Communications
expects to soar from $316 million last year to nearly $8
billion by 2002.
One problem for the search companies is that they typically
help users get somewhere else. If your business is based on
selling ads, you'd rather have people stick around.
Yahoo recognized this earlier than most, and has built one of
the most elaborate watering holes on the Web.
"There's a lot of wife-swapping going on right now.
It's like 'Melrose Place.' It's hard to keep track."
Kate Delhagen, computer analyst
News, sports scores, shopping, stock quotes, horoscopes and
chat are just part of the package. The company is
increasingly focused on getting users to think of themselves
as Yahoo subscribers.
Those willing to fill out a digital form specifying their
occupation, where they live and the kind of information they
want get an always-updated page of personalized content.
All of which helps Yahoo make money in two important ways.
First, more content means more for users to look at, and
therefore more places for ads. Second, the categories and
customization help Yahoo target users with ads more likely to
Yahoo charges advertisers between 2 cents and 8 cents for
each time their ads are viewed. The more narrowly the ad is
targeted, the higher the price.
Yahoo ahead in the ratings
Tim Koogle, chief executive of Yahoo, compares the company's
expansion to the programming of a television network. And
Yahoo is clearly ahead in the ratings.
In July, its site was visited by a remarkable 37 percent of
the people who use the Net, according to Media Metrix. That
was twice the penetration of Excite and second only to
"As you get bigger, you're more and more a desired place to
be for content partners and advertising partners," Koogle
said. "Then you can strike different deals than your
Excite, for instance, recently linked up with Intuit to
create what it is calling a personal finance "channel" where
users can use Intuit software to plot their money plans, from
mortgages to mutual funds. As part of the deal, Intuit bought
a 19 percent stake in Excite for $40 million.
The relationships can get complicated. America Online is a
big investor in Excite, for example, even though the two
companies have chat, e-mail and news services that presumably
Kate Delhagen, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, said the flurry of deal-making is not unusual
for an emerging market where companies are still trying to
figure out what kinds of relationships will pay off.
"There's a lot of wife-swapping going on right now," she
said. "It's like 'Melrose Place.' It's hard to keep track."
It's about to get even more confusing.
Netscape recently launched a content site it says is focused
on business users, but it combines many very familiar
elements, including news, search and chat. This is despite
the fact that Yahoo and Excite continue to pay millions of
dollars to advertise on Netscape's hugely popular home page.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is retooling its msn.com site, whose
traffic level lags far behind that of Yahoo or AOL. The
company is rumored to be developing a search engine of its
own, code-named Yukon.
Robbin Young, editor of the Windows Watcher newsletter, a
Redmond, Washington-based publication that tracks Microsoft,
said Yukon is likely to be based on Microsoft's extensive
research in language-processing, technology that could help
search engines better understand users' queries.
Microsoft officials declined to offer any details.
"The speculation has been that we're trying to put the search
guys out of business," said Laura Jennings, vice president of
the Microsoft Network. "But I think people will be surprised
about what we're doing."
CNet: online service in a Snap
There are also newcomers. CNet has launched a new online
service called Snap. It already has a search engine, news
summaries, chat and other features you'd expect. Now all it
needs is users.
For that, Snap is counting on help from some of the nation's
largest Internet service providers, companies that link
millions of people to the Net and then watch them scurry off
to other Web sites for chat, news and navigation help.
Snap aims to head off that stampede by providing ISPs with an
online service they can put in front of users the minute they
log on. The company already has deals with AT&T, Sprint, MCI
and Earthlink Network.
Sites like the Globe, which was mainly a chat service but is
now spreading its wings with the help of $20 million from
Alamo Rent-A-Car founder Michael Egan, and Geocities, which
built its name on free home pages, cite AOL as a model.
AOL is a private network with 9 million paying subscribers,
but it has emerged as the model for many of the Web's
so-called free online services. Its formula is almost
embarrassingly simple: a basic package of information and
communications tools that are easy to understand and use.
Barry Schuler, president of creative development at AOL, said
the company is flattered, but not threatened, by all of the
"The search companies and some of the content properties like
CNet are in regrouping mode," Schuler said. "They can only
point to one business model that seems to be working, and
Net navigators soup up their engines
In the rush to create new online empires, search engine
technology itself often seems to get left behind.
"There is a lot of room for technology to continue to make a
difference," said Graham Spencer, the 25-year-old computer
whiz who designed Excite's search engine. "But it won't be
traditional information-retrieval technology as much as new
ways to better understand what users want."
At Excite, that has meant devising better ways to interpret
users' often clumsy queries. A search for Chrysler, for
instance, produces not just the company's home page, but a
place to check its stock price or shop for cars online. There
is also a "power search" function for detailed queries.
Lycos has its own power search function called Lycos Pro, and
it recently improved its "spider," a tool capable of visiting
more than 10 million sites a day to keep the company's
Infoseek claims to have the most current index of Web sites,
and it also has a related-topics function, so a search for
"skiing" will produce links to Colorado resorts.
"There is a lot of room for technology to continue to make a
difference," said Graham Spencer, designer of Excite's search
engine. "But it won't be traditional information-retrieval
technology as much as new ways to better understand what
More specialized search sites available
Some new sites are taking a slightly different approach to
packaging content on the Web.
Mining Co., for instance, does not claim to be an exhaustive
directory. Instead, the company hires "guides" to assemble
what they consider the best content in a given category and
sift out information that is "dated, wrong or boring."
There are also a growing number of more specialized search
sites that cater to specific categories like medicine or law.
Future advances in search technology will be incremental,
Graham said, until artificial-intelligence technologies allow
computers to respond to queries with human-type insight.
"Having another person on the other side of the search box,
that's the Holy Grail," Spencer said. "But that's a long way
(Greg Miller can be reached at email@example.com)
© 1997, Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Los Angeles Times