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THE CUTTING EDGE / COVER STORY

Net Navigators Soup Up Engines

September 22, 1997|GREG MILLER

In the rush to create new online empires, search engine technology itself often seems to get left behind.

But Yahoo, Excite, Infoseek and others acknowledge that navigation is still the most popular service they offer. And all of these companies continue to pour resources into improving search technology.

Approaches vary. Yahoo is technically an index, not a search engine. The company licenses an engine from AltaVista, but concentrates on expanding its categorized index of Web sites, a task that requires dozens of employees to sort hundreds of sites every day.

Excite also has such an index, but it's better known for its search engine, a software tool that combs through hundreds of thousands of sites to find key words and phrases.

"There is a lot of room for technology to continue to make a difference," said Graham Spencer, the 25-year-old computer whiz who designed Excite's search engine. "But it won't be traditional information-retrieval technology as much as new ways to better understand what users want."

At Excite, that has meant devising better ways to interpret users' often clumsy queries. A search for Chrysler, for instance, produces not just the company's home page, but a place to check its stock price or shop for cars online. There is also a "power search" function for detailed queries.

Lycos has its own power search function called Lycos Pro, and it recently improved its "spider," a tool capable of visiting more than 10 million sites a day to keep the company's catalog updated.

Infoseek claims to have the most current index of Web sites, partly because it has streamlined the submission process for Web site developers. It also has a related topics function, so a search for "skiing" will produce links to snowboarding and Colorado resorts.

Some new sites are taking a slightly different approach to packaging content on the Web. Mining Co., for instance, does not claim to be an exhaustive directory. Instead, the company hires "guides" to assemble what they consider the best content in a given category and sift out information that is "dated, wrong or boring."

There are also a growing number of more specialized search sites that cater to specific categories such as medicine or law.

Almost all of the navigation companies are devising better ways to block so-called spam sites that try to trick search engines by sprinkling their pages with popular search terms such as "chat," "games" and "sex."

Future advances in search technology will be incremental, Graham said, until artificial intelligence technologies enable computers to respond to queries with human-type insight.

"Having another person on the other side of the search box--that's the Holy Grail," Spencer said. "But that's a long way off."

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