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LookSmart enters search game

The firm, now a bigger player on the Netcenter gateway Search Page, is making deals and building itself up as a search competitor.

It may be show time for LookSmart.

Yesterday, the San Francisco-based Web directory (and self-proclaimed media company) announced it will become a "premier search provider" for Netscape Communications' Netcenter Net Search page, giving it a spotlight in one of the most heavily visited sites on the Internet.

The deal allows LookSmart and other search providers Infoseek, Lycos, and AltaVista to share 50 percent of all Netcenter search traffic on a rotating basis. Netscape's own branded search engine will receive 25 percent, and Excite, which is powering Netscape's search engine, will receive the remaining 25 percent.

LookSmart's new role on Netcenter is an updated version of a previous arrangement. LookSmart has been a "marquee" search provider for Netcenter, which has given it limited exposure on Net searches. LookSmart also has been a premier search provider for Netscape in Australia and the United Kingdom.

Besides Netscape, LookSmart hasPortalopoly struck distribution deals with a series of ISPs to serve as the home page for their customers, and also has licensed its directory to HotBot and AltaVista. LookSmart uses AltaVista's search engine technology for queries that extend beyond its directory.

LookSmart was originally launched as a subsidiary of Reader's Digest. The relationship ended in a management buyout of Reader Digest's stake in September 1997; LookSmart has since been doing well on its own. Just this week, the company secured $8.3 million in investments from Cox Media and venture capital firms. The cash infusion gave LookSmart the financial boost it needed to secure the distribution deal on Netcenter.

And jumping into Netcenter's spotlight may be just the push LookSmart needs to become a significant player on the Internet.

"[Netscape] is the Super Bowl advertisement of the Internet," said LookSmart's Australian-born chief executive Evan Thornley. "It is one of the best entries to new users and to get them to know what you offer."

The blossoming new-user market is exactly what LookSmart hopes to attract, given the volume of new users that pass through Netcenter.

But Thornley said the new users that LookSmart hopes to attract are the ones who fit its core demographic--an audience that tends to be older than the average Web surfer, is more heavily female, and is more likely to have children. Since LookSmart does not carry pornography in its directory service, many have labeled it a "family oriented" directory--a categorization from which Thornley shies away.

"We are just serving an ordinary mainstream bunch of people who want to get stuff done and get going," he said. Thornley noted that LookSmart's decision not to run pornography was more a response to its audience preferences than a statement of values.

LookSmart will continue to pursue its distribution strategy of partnering with access providers and licensing its directory to media companies in search of "portal functionality," as Thornley describes it.

"We don't have to be the first place people go," said Thornley. "But I certainly hope we are where people come back to frequently."