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Excite upgrades search engine

The Net gateway site joins other portals that are improving their search technology as a further draw for new users.

Excite today became the latest Net gateway or "portal" site to return to its roots: search.

This month, three portals have announced upgrades either planned or implemented to their search technologies. Early in May, Digital Equipment's AltaVista--which was relatively late to offer the features inherent in Net gateway sites, such as free email--announced it would incorporate technology called RealName by tech firm Centraal to offer more relevant search results to users. AltaVista said the technology was aimed at newer users who are unfamiliar with typing URLs into browsers to get to where they want to go on the Web.

Last week, Infoseek, which until Portalopoly recently was a relatively minor player in the portal war, introduced new search technology dubbed Extra Search Precision, designed to give users more direct results to general search queries.

Portal sites such as Excite, Yahoo, Infoseek, Netscape Communications' Netcenter, and Lycos are fighting hard for loyal users and the ad dollars they attract. With the Net's explosion in popularity and use, all the portals are looking to draw new users--so they have been tripping over each other to add functionality and features such as free email, stock quotes, paging services, and the like.

However, the portals all began as search engines, and though the added functionality may attract a user, he or she will not return if the site's search technology is not simple to use and does not produce consistent, relevant results. Good search technology could prove an effective means of differentiation for the portal sites.

"In upgrading their search technology, what [Excite and others] are really doing is simplifying it," said Patrick Keane, an analyst with Jupiter Communications. "It's a natural evolution, and it will be a regular course of action in this space.

"It has already started [with Infoseek and AltaVista], and once one does this, the others will follow suit in short order," he added.

Moreover, Keane noted, the portal firms can use the technology to gain additional revenue.

Improved search technology provides "a new area to raise CPMs [cost per thousand, the amount an advertiser pays to be seen by 1,000 users] and push content to people," he said, adding that a user who searches for information on the Miami Dolphins, for example, could be given recent scores and news through a content deal with a sports site, or merchandise links, from which the portal could get a cut of sales. The upgrade Excite added today gives users searching on a sports team a results page that includes latest game scores, current schedule of upcoming games, links to official team sites, and the current score if a game is in progress, the firm said.

The technology that Excite incorporated into its search engine, dubbed Jango, was added to the site late last year after the firm acquired its creator, Net shopping technology provider NetBot. As a shopping agent, Jango is designed to help users search for specific products on the Net.

With the addition of Jango, users searching for a publicly traded company will get a results page with the firm's stock price and activity, contact information, and links to its official Web site and to up-to-date news about the company, Excite said.

Excite was able to apply the technology to searches other than shopping because its overall function is one of "query interpretation," according to David Sze, vice president of network programming and content for Excite.

Jango uses "sophisticated algorithms that help determine what the user is looking for and what information it should provide," he said.

The upgrade today covers searches on public companies and sports teams only, the firm said. It plans to add similar features for searches on books, music, movies, colleges, and more in the coming months.

The firm has high hopes for its search upgrade. Sze said the timing of Excite's announcement relative to those of AltaVista and Infoseek was coincidental, and that the firm has been working on implementing the technology into searches since it acquired NetBot in October 1997.

As for user reaction, "Never have I seen such positive feedback in user testing," he said, noting that the firm is aiming to gain new users as well as more experienced Netizens.