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Search start-ups seek Google's throne

Web darling Google has some fresh competition: a pair of start-ups aiming to improve on its immensely popular recipe for serving fast, relevant search results.

Web darling Google has some fresh competition: a pair of start-ups aiming to improve on its immensely popular recipe for serving fast, relevant search results untainted by pay-for-placement listings.

New Jersey-based Teoma went live with a test version, or beta, in June. Another newcomer, California-based Wisenut, launched this month.

Both shamelessly imitate Google in several ways, such as sporting stripped-down Internet sites and touting proprietary technology for ranking the significance of billions of pages that make up the World Wide Web. All three companies also have refused to follow a recent trend of selling placement within search results to advertisers--a practice that has created enviable Web profits at companies such as GoTo.com but sparked complaints from consumer advocates.

Despite their similarities, Teoma and Wisenut are looking to cut into Google's dominance by carving up search results in slightly different ways. Each service says it has cracked the formula for delivering germane results in a way that is faster and more cost-efficient. And each is frantically working to amass the largest database of searchable documents to outstrip Google's lead in the marketplace with more than 1.3 billion indexed pages.

Although the technology looks promising, Teoma and Wisenut may have some difficulty wooing partners away from more established players, search experts said.

"Teoma's technology looks very good, and its results are relevant," said Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch.com. "That's hopeful because if they are trying to compete with Google they're not at an immediate disadvantage. But its big weakness is that its database isn't very large...Their real challenge will be to win new customers, and it's going to be harder to try to convince some of them that they should come away from Google."

The rivals have surfaced at a time when the face of Internet search is changing. Many major search services are taking on paid listing models to fuel their results and boost revenues while advertising dollars remain scarce. Inktomi, AltaVista and Fast Search are just a few companies allowing marketers to pay for prominence in search results--a trend that came into vogue with the success of for-fee engine GoTo.com.

Signaling the widespread acceptance of the model, Microsoft's MSN and AOL Time Warner's Netscape are licensing search technology from paid-listing services. But the practice has come under fire by consumer-advocacy group Commercial Alert, which faults MSN and others for failing to adequately disclose that many of the top search results are bought.

With growing commercialization of search engines, Google has stood apart from competitors for its simple style and relatively noncommercial results. Google sells advertising links that appear on the first page of search results, but these are separated from actual query results. And unlike search services including AltaVista and Inktomi, it does not sell entry into its database.

Now Teoma and Wisenut are hoping to follow in Google's footsteps, filling a widening gap for research and noncommercial searches.

"The whole challenge in search is to improve relevance and get behind consumers. The problem is there's a lot of junk on the Web, as it's getting much bigger," said Paul Gardi, president of Teoma.

Just search
Mountain View, Calif.-based Google has become the search destination of choice for the digerati and many others. It also has earned the favor of search mavens, partly for its focus on search technology and for its abstinence from the kind of commercial extras that characterize many portals.

With backing from such Silicon Valley rainmakers as Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the company has also emerged in the past two years as one of the chief engines powering portals such as Yahoo and several corporate sites. Last year, the company won Yahoo's account from Inktomi, and it recently struck one of its largest deals to date powering search for Sony's company sites.

As the company blossomed, it made strides to transform its business from Silicon Valley cool to Wall Street respectable, complete with a profitable balance sheet. In this vein, it recently tapped Eric Schmidt, former Novell chief executive, to head the company. Schmidt replaces co-founder Larry Page.

In a recent interview, Schmidt said Google had reached profitability. Although the company does not have immediate plans to go public, some analysts say it could have the makings of a hot initial public offering.

Like Google, Teoma is growing its business on a grassroots strategy and focusing on making search the best it can be for Net surfers. The company touts greater search relevance and more options over others in the marketplace, including results grouped by topic, expert links and Web pages, or what it calls authoritative links. This means that a search on the terms "grocery stores" would return links to online grocers rather than articles or pages that mention grocery stores.

Expert links break out pages that summarize the topic. For example, a search for "cars" might return a site with links to many car Web sites.

The technology, developed by Apostolos Gerasoulis, a computer science professor at Rutgers University, uses dynamic Web clustering to rank and group the relevant Web pages on any given topic. Specifically, it ranks a page based on its popularity across the Web and its status within communities focused on the subject, as does Wisenut's service.

Popularity contest
Many search technologies base their results on the popularity of a page, or how often it is linked to other pages on the Net. By contrast, Google, Teoma and Wisenut consider popularity but also rely on other factors and proprietary methods to determine the rank of a Web page in a given search.

Google's system, called PageRank, identifies the link structure of the entire Web and ranks pages based partly on the number of other important pages linked to them and partly on popularity. The search algorithms themselves are closely guarded secrets, Google spokesman David Krane said.

Google also taps Netscape's Open Directory Project, an open-source directory of Web sites, for topic-based searches.

Teoma and Wisenut hope to convince Web surfers that their methodologies are even more effective.

Gartner analysts Whit Andrews and Jackie Fenn say the search engine business has become something of a king-of-the-hill game with a succession of royalty.

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"What Teoma does that is different is that we crawl the Web and look at subject-specific topics. We are able to cluster the Web into communities and understand what are the most important pages in those communities and who the experts are in that community," Teoma's Gardi said.

He says flatly that Teoma's technology aces Google's, even though it has yet to be fully launched.

"We have one-sixth of the size of data (that Google has), yet we're getting excellent results and are able to break into groups and find these expert links," Gardi said. "We have three dimensions of search that are dynamic, and others have one dimension of search that are static.

"Are we better than they are? Yes. Are we able to deliver better results? Yes, because it's more suited to today's Web structure."

In response to such claims, Google's Krane said his company stands by its record.

"Define 'better,'" he said. "Search is a very objective experience. Throughout our three-year history we've certainly seen our share of competition. But we've firmly established ourselves as the No. 1 search service on the Internet, and this can be attributed to our laser-like focus on a search-only business model."

He added that Google's newest competitors are not as comprehensive in their searches, and their underlying infrastructures are limited. For example, Google's 10,000 machines allow the site to provide most search results in a half of a second.

In addition, other bigger rivals have attempted to mimic Google with little success. AltaVista's no-frills search engine, Raging Search, was quietly shuttered earlier this year.

Teoma, a nine-person company located about 10 minutes from Rutgers University in New Jersey, plans to commercialize its service by selling advertising on its Web site and licensing the engine to third parties, including corporate intranets and Web portals. The company has not yet announced any partners.

Funded by Woodcliff Lake, N.J.-based Hawk Holdings, the company launched its test site two months ago and plans to remove the "beta" from its site when it has added 250 million documents to its database, up from the current 100 million.

Wisenut has already outpaced Teoma with 800 million indexed pages. Founded in August 1999 by mySimon creator and developer Yeogirl Yun, Wisenut says it has one of the fastest Web crawlers with one of the largest searchable databases. Although the company has a beta release available now, Wisenut will officially launch in September. (mySimon, an online comparison-shopping service, is owned by CNET Networks, publisher of News.com.)

The privately held company is backed by Samsung Data Systems America, KTB Venture Capital, Ambex Venture Group, Hyundai Investment Management, LG Venture Investment, Dongwon Venture Capital, iMas and Intus Technologies. So far, it's expanded overseas with a Korean version of the service.

"We think the market is actually very strong for search engines because Internet usage keeps growing," said Himawan Gunadhi, chief executive of Wisenut. "The older companies are having a lot of problems trying to keep up with the growth of demand...We are better suited to the growth of the Web."

Gunadhi said that Wisenut goes beyond providing people with the most popular pages on the Web. He said that if keywords are entered, the search engine analyzes the words to determine whether the most popular sites are relevant for that search.

"It may happen that the most popular sites may not be the most important when it comes to the results," Gunadhi said.

News.com's Gwendolyn Mariano contributed to this report.