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Alexa accessorizes browsers

Alexa Internet releases the first commercial version of its reference and navigation tool that plugs into a browser and provides background information on Web sites.

Alexa Internet released today the first commercial version of its reference and navigation tool that plugs into a browser and provides background information on Web sites.

Once downloaded and installed, the Alexa software, which is free and appears as a toolbar at the bottom of a user's browser, monitors a user's surfing to display statistics for Web sites, suggest related sites, and offer quick links to online reference material.

With the glut of information on the Web, not to mention a glut of search engines and directories, Alexa's in-browser tool could come in handy for those who don't want to click through to another site for ancillary information.

Alexa sees its product as similar to that of Firefly Network and others that seek out users' potential preferences, as well as search engines and directories such as Yahoo and Excite.

"The advantage of what we do compared to Yahoo, for example, is that we stay with you as a dashboard wherever you go," said Alexa spokeswoman Cynthia Lohr. "Search engines currently don't do that."

A button on the toolbar links the user to thumbnail guides of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Webster's Dictionary, and Webster's Thesaurus.

Alexa uses intelligent agents, also known as "bots" or "crawlers," to gather and display information about each Web site the user visits.

The Alexa toolbar instantly displays the following information about each site: who has registered the site; the number of pages on the site; how many other sites point to this site; how frequently the site is updated; and the site's popularity.

Alexa also suggests relevant links to each site by combining its users' feedback with the navigation paths of previous visitors to the site. The company hopes to garner revenue by selling space in the links' windows to advertisers, similar to the method search engines such as Yahoo use to match banner ads to users' keyword searches. The company will not sell the recommended links themselves, a spokeswoman said.

Because Alexa is the commercial arm of the Internet Archive, it taps that resource to display Web pages that are no longer live. Instead of fetching a "not found" error message, for example, the end user will go to the archived version of an old page. The nonprofit Internet Archive project seeks to store for posterity Web pages, Usenet discussions, and shareware--anything Net-related that will be lost to history. Alexa gives back by adding to the archive any new sites its users come across.

Alexa users who know each others' email addresses can check to see who else is online. Without switching to a separate email client, those online can send each other instant text messages, which pop up from the toolbar.

The software currently runs on Windows 95 and NT. The company says it will have Macintosh, Windows 3.1, and Unix versions in the unspecified future.