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Clinton blows horn for search start-up

Ex-president touts search engine Accoona at launch. Are the dot-com glory days on their way back?

A Web search upstart is cutting the ribbon on a new service with the celebrity muscle of Bill Clinton, a sure sign that dot-com hype is back.

On Monday night in New York, the former U.S. president became the first outsider to type a few keywords into a new business-focused search engine, called Accoona. While Clinton has no affiliation in the software company behind the engine, he was hired to give a speech at its launch event in the Big Apple.

"When I became president in January 1993, there were a grand total of 50 (five-oh) sites on the Internet," Clinton said during his keynote speech. "When I left, there were 50 million, and now there's a countless number, which makes the work of Accoona all the more important."

Personalities of all stripes graced commercials and Web events during the dot-com heyday. But since the boom's implosion, many of the star-powered promotions have dimmed, and celebrity investors have wised up or become selective and secretive.

Search has changed the game, however. Google, with its multibillion-dollar stock market launch and revenue from search-related advertising, has stirred Internet entrepreneurs from their tech slumber and helped create a turnaround in the online-ad market. Google has attracted several famous but private investors, including golf phenomenon Tiger Woods and former Vice President Al Gore. In addition, scores of search companies have emerged this year, claiming that their products rival Google's for finding information.

It all adds up to a bubblelike feel reminiscent of 1999.

Back then, many celebrities trumpeted Internet services. "Star Trek" actor William Shatner publicized the benefits of travel site Priceline on television. Movie star Whoopi Goldberg was a pitchwoman for and investor in online currency company Flooz.

Some celebrities have returned to the Internet scene of late. Last year, Sharon Stone appeared in several commercials for AOL's broadband service. Microsoft has been promoting its hiring of Ken Jennings, longtime "Jeopardy" winner, as , the company's encyclopedia software.

Accoona may be trading on Clinton's persona to establish credibility in an already crowded search market. Mitch Oscar, executive vice president of ad company Carat Digital, said Clinton represents fiscal responsibility and smarts--something the early dot-commers and investors lacked. "Dot-coms coming back now seem to be much stronger," Oscar said.

Clinton asked that instead of being paid for his appearance, the company make a donation to a charitable foundation dedicated to fighting HIV, Accoona CEO Stuart Kauder said.

Accoona, based in New Jersey, is privately held, with backing from chess champion Anatoli Karpov and China Daily Information, one of its launch partners. Accoona recently named Eckhard Pfeiffer, former Compaq Computer CEO, as chairman. Pfeiffer co-founded Accoona early in 2004.

Accoona plans to improve Web search with artificial intelligence and data on more than 10 million businesses. Its search engine will let people refine search queries with particular emphasis on certain words. Alternatively, people can look specifically for company information such as its address, phone number or revenue.

The company has licensed search-related advertisements from Overture Services, a unit of Yahoo.

"Our technology learns and grows as time goes on; we think that's our differentiator," Kauder said.