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Lycos's loop has users reconsider rivals

The company is using its search engine to keep users from defecting to its competitors by greeting them with a page that suggests users try Lycos instead.

So much for "coopetition"--Lycos is using its search engine to keep users from defecting to its competitors.

When users type "Yahoo" or "Excite" into Lycos's search query box, they are greeted with an intermediary page instead of the general search results.

"Are you looking for Excite?" the page reads. "If you want to search the Web, try Lycos--Your Personal Internet Guide--instead."

Lycos began implementing its policy of coopetition about six months ago in an attempt to retain users, according to Jan Horsfall, vice president of marketing at Lycos. The policy extends only to Yahoo and Excite; queries for other competitors such as America Online and MSN yield standard search results.

"Those two are our largest competitors," Horsfall said about Yahoo and Excite. "Some time ago we made a conscientious decision that if they typed in those words we would remind them of our offering."

Horsfall also added that the page is just a marketing device to maintain customer loyalty to the Lycos brand.

"As an average marketer, I would love to go one-on-one before [the consumer] takes a competitor's product off the shelf," he said. "This is an opportunity for us to do it. Part of it is being a smart marketer."

Yahoo and Excite declined comment.

Shutting the gates
The Web's free-form, choice-oriented beginnings have evolved over time as commercial interests have taken the medium by storm. As the race for eyeballs and the ad dollars they bring has heightened, the idea of linking to the competition has begun to look less appealing. And now that offline media interests are trying to take a piece of the pie, analysts say the medium will become even less open.

"The growth of the Web came out of universities and nonprofits, but as you see a greater swath of major media and major corporations move online, this altruistic form of the Internet is going to change," said Jupiter Communications analyst Patrick Keane.

Lycos one of many
Lycos is by no means the first to block its exits.

Last year, Netscape Communications inked a number of deals to include rival search engines in a rotation on Netcenter's search bar. However, notably missing from the pack--which included Lycos, Snap, LookSmart, Infoseek (now part of the Disney-run Go Network), and Excite--was Yahoo.

Instead, Yahoo opted to remain as a "distinguished" partner link on the bottom of Netcenter's search page until the end of its contract. (Snap is a joint venture between NBC and CNET: The Computer Network, publisher of News.com.)

Today, after the contract's expiration, the Netcenter search page has a link to a "Where's Yahoo?" page, which gives an explanation for the missing Yahoo link. The page also is a promotion for its user-generated Open Directory.

"If you enjoyed Yahoo, we invite you to try Netscape Open Directory," the page reads.

Yahoo itself made similar defensive maneuvers last year when it ended its relationship with AltaVista to provide search results that extended beyond Yahoo's edited directory.

Both Yahoo and AltaVista acknowledged that AltaVista's increasingly aggressive efforts to become a Web portal site became a conflict of interest and played a role in Yahoo's decision to change its search technology license. Yahoo signed on Inktomi as AltaVista's replacement.

Does the consumer care?
Jupiter's Keane noted that Lycos's policy would not likely cause any major consumer outcry.

"It's transparent to consumers, and not that big of a deal," he said.

But he warned that the practice should not be conducted liberally, especially among media outlets that are trying to become major Web players. For example, Disney's Go Network forcing users into ABC for every CBS query would create more of a stir than Lycos's self-promotion.

"If that happened, I'm sure you'd see a much greater outcry," said Keane.