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Search engines get smart

The new industry trend is to avoid overwhelming users by supplying less information with better organization.

For many Net users, search engines are too powerful. They get a blast of information but without any logical breakdown of what they're looking for.

To get around the problem, companies increasingly are offering software that organizes, or clusters, the retrieved hits into logical groups.

In the latest example, Inference Corporation (INFR) next week will announce Inference Find, a search tool that helps sort information retrieved from intranets. The software already is offered on the company's home page for free, but now it is being extended to the intranet for a charge. The product will sell starting at $5,995.

Inference is taking a similar tack to that of AltaVista, a popular search engine. Inference's marketing strategy is to use the Web to introduce users to their products and then charge them to transfer the technology to corporate intranets, according to Nobby Akiha, vice president of marketing for Inference.

This way, companies can make money off a product many are now giving away for free. Turning a profit in the search engine market has proved elusive.

"The most common problem we hear is that users type in a query and get all the results back, making it hard to find the information quickly," Akiha said.

In company offices, for example, users would be able to learn more about their 401(k) plans by searching on Inference Find. After typing in the keyword "401(k)," it would organize the results in topics such as "enrollment," "distribution," and "investment alternatives," the company said.

On the Net, users can type in "bulb" and get listings on light bulbs and even light bulb jokes.

The system is not foolproof, however. It also lists "lawyer jokes" under "bulb." Why? One joke asks, "How many lawyers does it take to screw in a light bulb?" The punch line: a long-winded answer in legalese.