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On a Search Mission to Outdo Google

Developers of Net guide Teoma say its multilayered results are more effective. It debuts today.

April 01, 2002|MICHAEL LIEDTKE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SAN FRANCISCO — Apostolos Gerasoulis has a message for everyone who relies on Google.com as an online guide: It's time to move on to something better.

After spending the last six months refining the technology, Gerasoulis and his development team will roll out a search engine this evening called Teoma that will take dead aim at Google, widely regarded as the best way to find something on the Web.

"We are the next generation in search," said Gerasoulis, a Rutgers University mathematics professor who has had Google in his sights since founding Teoma in 1999. "Google has reached its maturity. We think people will prefer using a new technology that addresses their needs with greater authority."

Mountain View, Calif.-based Google views Teoma as "an interesting approach" to searching, but remains confident its site will continue to provide the quickest, most useful responses on the Web, said Craig Silverstein, Google's director of technology.

"We think the jury is still out on how effective [Teoma] is," Silverstein said. "The user interaction required to get where you want to go can be pretty time-consuming."

Analysts say the increased competition should improve the quality of online searches, the second-most popular application on the Web. Only e-mail is used more frequently than search engines.

"I doubt Teoma will become a Google killer," said Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch.com. "But it could become an interesting second choice, and that should keep Google on its toes."

Teoma isn't the first to try to outdo Google. Online search pioneer AltaVista tried to recapture some of the following it lost after Google's emergence by launching a copycat site called Raging.com in May 2000. Raging.com never made significant inroads, and AltaVista ended the experiment last year.

"Google hasn't had anyone really try to challenge it for a while, so it's going to be interesting to see how Teoma stacks up," said industry analyst Rob Lancaster of Yankee Group.

Before it can threaten Google, Teoma still must prove it's the best among other lesser-known but technologically promising search engines, Sullivan said. This second tier of innovative search engines include Alltheweb.com and Wisenut.com, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based start-up recently purchased by LookSmart Ltd. for $9.25million.

Teoma--a Gaelic term for "expert"--lacked the financial resources to mount a serious challenge to Google until Gerasoulis and co-owners agreed to sell their Piscataway, N.J.-based company to Emeryville, Calif.-based Ask Jeeves Inc. for $4.4 million last year.

Since the sale, Teoma has continued to provide search results on its site, but Ask Jeeves kept the most powerful tools under wraps during an extended testing phase. The retooled Teoma site is scheduled to debut at 5 p.m. today.

It won't be easy to topple Google, founded in 1998 by Stanford University graduate students Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

In a measure of its popularity, Google processes more than 150million search queries a day through its own increasingly popular site and other highly trafficked online destinations, such as Yahoo, that license Google's technology. What's more, Google has 3 billion Web documents in its index, compared with 200 million pages for Teoma.

Google users who visit the Teoma page will notice the similarities between the sites. Like Google, Teoma offers a mostly blank page broken up by a few bright colors.

Both sites depend on complicated algorithms to analyze search requests, but Teoma says its formula is more effective because it breaks the Web into clusters of online communities. This enables Teoma to categorize its results better than Google and offer more helpful choices to refine a request.

Besides providing a basic list of primary results, Teoma presents links to sub-categories that may be related to a topic, as well as a section devoted to "expert" sources.

"When you are looking for something on the Web, we will help you find it, learn about it and investigate it," Gerasoulis said.

Teoma's multilayered approach might overwhelm some Web surfers accustomed to Google's more straightforward approach.

"One of the beautiful things about Google is that it really is 'Search for Dummies,'" Lancaster said. "Teoma is going to have to educate people how to get the most from its site."

Unlike Google's early days, Teoma will have ample marketing muscle to help spread the word about its site.

Even as its natural-language search engine lost ground to Google and other rivals, Ask Jeeves continued to build one of the Web's best-known brands. Ask Jeeves also has been a publicly traded company for nearly three years, another factor that should make it easier to draw attention to Teoma, Lancaster said.

Privately held Google became hugely popular without any major marketing campaigns.

Teoma already has paid dividends on Ask Jeeves' main site, which began incorporating the improved search technology in mid-December. Since it began to draw on Teoma's technology, Ask Jeeves says it has registered a 25% increase in the number of clicks on its search results while the rate of people leaving Ask.com in apparent frustration has declined by 15%.

In the summer, Ask Jeeves plans to begin licensing Teoma's search engine to other sites. Licensing is already a successful business for Google, which collected $7.1 million in fees from Yahoo Inc. last year, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

"Google is always going to be good, but we think we can offer a very viable alternative," said Steve Berkowitz, president of Ask Jeeves' Web properties.

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