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Search engines battle for browser share

Net search engines are finding innovative ways to eliminate the number of mouse clicks required to visit their Web sites. Lycos and Excite are the latest to make their sites more accessible to browsers and online services.

In an effort to get closer and closer to consumers, Net search engines are finding innovative ways to eliminate the number of mouse clicks required to visit their Web sites.

Yesterday, Excite (XCIT) posted a new utility called Excite Direct on its Web site, which allows users to directly enter searches into Netscape Communications' Navigator toolbar.

Meanwhile, some companies are pursuing partnerships that effectively reduce the distance between consumers and search engines. This week, Prodigy Services cut a deal that will make the Lycos (LCOS) search engine readily available to Prodigy Internet users.

Although Net search engines such as Lycos, Yahoo, and Excite are open to anyone with an Internet connection, the companies have learned that staying competitive means getting closer to the customer. So far, that means aggressively pursuing business partnerships or devising clever software programs that make searching easier--or both.

Yahoo, for example, cut a deal with Microsoft in August to become the default engine in Internet Explorer 3.0, an arrangement that, like Excite Direct, allows users to make queries directly from the browser's address window. The deals with Yahoo and Excite riled other search companies, some of which later posted utilities that would made their services the default engine for IE.

Building your search service into a household name is another way companies are pulling users back into their sites. According to Lycos, its deal with Prodigy will help strengthen the search engine's brand with users, an area in which the two leading search companies, Yahoo and Excite, have excelled.

"The advantages for us are kind of obvious. One is the Lycos brand that Prodigy users will now get exposure to," Lycos's spokeswoman Sarah Garnsey said. "For Prodigy, they are able to offer their own users this kind of top-notch search functionality without users having to leave their Web page. It's a matter of convenience and ease of use."

Launched last week, Prodigy Internet is a new online service based entirely on the Web. Instead of using a proprietary software client as users do with Prodigy's older service, Prodigy Internet is available to any paying customer with a Web browser.

The Prodigy and Lycos partnership comes at a time when Yahoo and Excite have begun recasting themselves as media companies and, in the process, are taking on some of the characteristics of full-featured online services, such as publishing editorial content.

But according to analysts, Lycos has remained more focused on its core search business and is less likely to become a competitor to Prodigy in the future.

"Lycos wants to offer the best way to get people to where they're going," said Paul Noglows, an Internet analyst with investment banking firm Hambrecht & Quist. "It comes down to a question of how much original content is on your site. I think [Lycos] added enough content to make it interesting. But they don't want to become a major media provider."