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“Launching a search engine makes sense because there’s no competition.” Not an elevator pitch from the web’s earliest days, but Rich Skrenta talking to me last week. He’s co-founder of Blekko, a search engine three years in the making that recently launched a private beta.

Where most people see a search market where one giant company has a near-monopoly with another taking most of what’s left, Skrenta claims to see opportunity. “There are only two search engines in the world, Google and Bing, there is room for one more,” he told me, pointing out today’s dominant duo offer very similar experiences anyway. By offering something a little different he and co-founder Mike Markson don’t intend to kill Google, but to secure a small but sustainable fraction of the vast value of search advertising.

Enter Blekko. Its main aims are to make it possible for you to perform searches not possible elsewhere, and to give open, direct access to its workings.

I’ve used it for a few days now, and like it so far. The plain old search experience is good, and yields the kind of results you would expect. The most noticeable difference from what’s come before are Blekko’s “slashtags” that allow you to direct its algorithms in specific ways.

Search for “gulf oil spill” and you’ll get vanilla results from all over the web. Type “/science” at the end of your query and you’ll get results only from scientific sites; type “/conservative” or “/liberal” and results will come from palces with a particular leaning. There are hundreds of slashtags built in for topics for “/appleblogs” to “/zen”; others like “/amazon”, “/map” or “/time” search specific sites, bring in specific information or reorder the results. I like the way I can with a single click add results to my personal “/spam” slashtag to remove certain sites from my future results.

Blekko is also transparent about the data used to give results. You can see the number of links to a page discovered by its crawler, where they came from geographically, and how its overall rank compares with any other page.

It all adds up to a distinctive experience, and one that performs speedily. But it seems likely to work best for a tech-savvy demographic doing searches where Google’s first result isn’t always the answer. It’s unlikely everyone will want to get to grips with slashing; but that might help focus efforts to monetize through advertising. Only time will tell if there really is room for one more in the search market.

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