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Revitalizing off-air television shows makes sense for AOL and Time Warner, says analyst Kaufhold. “The content that they’ve got was just lying fallow in the Time Warner studio,” he says. “They weren’t making money with it.”

But a studio’s worth of video doesn’t mean much if the right clip can’t be found. And that’s why AOL has invested heavily in video search technology, McIntyre says. In 2003, the company bought Singingfish, which at the time provided “the only commercially viable media search engine,” according to McIntyre. Singingfish’s search technology is designed to scour the Web for pages with source code referring to video content. It then collects the videos’ “metadata,” which could include descriptors like file titles, copyright dates, or less often, closed-caption transcripts.

But for much video on the Internet, there isn’t any particularly descriptive metadata. And increasingly Web video is delivered by advanced software applications written in a combination of programming languages – which most Web crawlers can’t read.

On January 10, AOL took a step toward solving these problems by acquiring Truveo, a Burlingame, CA-based video search company whose software picks up online video that Web crawlers like Singingfish can miss. Truveo does this through “visual crawling,” according to McIntyre. Rather than examining the source code for a Web page, the company’s software consumes it “as you would with your eye,” he says. For example, Truveo could recognize headlines and titles in a digital version of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and put those details into AOL’s video search index.

In this respect, Truveo’s technology outshines even Google’s. Google does not search the web for pre-existing video, but instead relies on individuals and larger content providers to upload it to the company’s servers. It searches closed-captioned transcripts and metadata, but only within this reserve.

All of the competitors in video search have work to do, though, argues Peter Chane, a senior business product manager at Google. “I don’t think anyone, including us, has solved the problem,” he says.

In December Google bought a five-percent stake in AOL. For now, the two companies are holding to their contrasting video search and distribution philosophies. And neither is saying whether they will collaborate on future video search technologies.

It also remains to be seen whether most online video will ultimately be free and supported by advertisements, as in the case of AOL, or available for a fee, like the Google video store. In any case, the latest round of announcements from AOL, Google, and others is “not the final move,” says In-Stat’s Kaufhold. “It’s just one more in the game.” Ultimately, the winner will likely be the company that offers the best shows and makes them easiest to find.

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