Search tools leave Web out of sight

The latest trend in search technology attempts to leave search and navigation sites behind.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
3 min read
John Rodkin The latest trend in search technology attempts to leave search and navigation sites behind.

Two start-ups, GuruNet and Flyswat, let users in search of information find it without visiting a separate Web page like Yahoo or the other search engines. Both companies' applications launch a small pop-up window that lists a variety of resources about selected topics.

The start-ups are part of a trend toward localizing search and other applications, bringing them directly to the user rather than making users seek them out on the Web.

Other examples include applications that let users chat with other visitors at the same Web site and search capabilities built into the interfaces of Netscape's Communicator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

Both GuruNet and Flyswat have gone a step beyond browser-based search, letting users dig up information with just a click of the mouse on a particular word.

Now the challenge will be to compete with each other, and the posturing and positioning already is in full swing.

Flyswat, launched last year by a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineers, underlines words in a Web document that users can click for more information. By contrast, GuruNet returns information--including dictionary definitions, thesaurus synonyms, encyclopedia entries, translations and weather statistics--on virtually any word in any computer application.

Flyswat is hard at work catching up to GuruNet's more comprehensive technology. The company's tool will return results on any word across various applications with version 2.0, which is scheduled to launch by the end of the month, according to founder and chief executive John Rodkin.

Rodkin defended Flyswat's current approach to linking only selected words, however, and said the new version would continue to highlight words with more comprehensive entries.

"We think that proactively putting in hyperlinks, and letting users see the words where there's additional information, and having a huge database behind that is what users want," Rodkin said in an interview. "The problem we've seen in focus groups is that people want to know when they're going to get 42 different sources instead of just the dictionary definition."

GuruNet gleans its information through partnerships with content providers including Houghton Mifflin, News Alert, Columbia University Press, Stats, Stockpoint, Accuweather, Whatis.com, Mountain Data Systems and Who2. Flyswat's content partners include MySimon, Raging Bull and Red Herring.

Flyswat's user interface includes a toolbar that sits underneath the browser. The application is available for use only with Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser 4.0 and higher.

GuruNet, by contrast, sits behind the scenes until a user clicks on a word while pressing down the Alt key.

"GuruNet does its work extremely fast and is unobtrusive," said founder Robert Rosenschein. "GuruNet is like an intelligent assistant. We're turning the Web upside down, putting the knowledge of the Net into every word on the screen. Instead of having to go hunt for information, it comes down to you."

GuruNet is technically in its beta, or trial, version, which launched in February of last year. The official 1.0 version is expected by the end of the current quarter.

The company, with research and development facilities in Israel, is based in the United States and is setting up offices on the West Coast. Key angel investors include Mort Meyerson, former chief executive of Electronic Data Systems and Perot Systems; Wit Capital chairman Bob Lessin; former ICQ chairman Yossi Vardi; Apple pioneers John Sculley and Guy Kawasaki; and Ron Conway of Angel Investors.

Flyswat boasts as backers Ben Rosen, chairman of Compaq Computer; Rangaswami Vasudevan, chief technology officer of CacheFlow; Ray Wallin, chief financial officer of Junglee, which was acquired by Amazon; and Steve Victorino, vice president at Four11, which was acquired by Yahoo. Angel Investors' Ron Conway, apparently hedging his bets, is also an investor in Flyswat.

Flyswat's corporate investors include US Venture Partners, Stanford University and Comdisco Ventures.

Both companies envision revenue streaming in from transaction fees. For example, if an instant search on a book title leads to a sale of that title through an online book seller, Flyswat and GuruNet could collect a fee. Advertising and traffic brokering are other possible sources of revenue.

Flyswat will announce a boost with the adoption of its product by browser vendor NeoPlanet on Jan. 17.