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Seeking Smarter Searches

New search engines could bring order to the web.

It’s the online ordeal every web surfer dreads: You type a simple question or keyword into an Internet search engine only to get the response “about 52,839 pages found.” Then it’s time for the real searching-as you plow through the hits one by one.

As the amount of information on the Internet explodes, conventional search engines are struggling to keep up. But that’s creating lots of opportunity for innovative Net-preneurs who have begun introducing a host of strategies to make searching the Web a whole lot more productive.

For instance, at ESPN’s National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) men’s college basketball site, users can type in “Who won the 1999 NCAA championship?” and get the immediate response: “The University of Connecticut.” ESPN’s search is powered by Fact City, a 1999 Waltham, Mass., startup that bills itself as the Internet’s only “fact-finding engine.”

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Fact City works by aggregating data sources ranging from the U.S. Census to the Internet Movie Database. When a user asks a question, Fact City uses keywords from the query to find the right database, then the right answer. The scheme relies on a large vocabulary of pre-selected keywords: over 500 alone for the college basketball database, which went live on ESPN in mid-March.

Unlike the Web’s original searchengines, Fact City doesn’t plan to become a multipurpose portal designed to draw millions of Web users. “Our business plan is not to be a destination site,” says company vice president Mike Olfe, “but rather establish partnerships with portals.”

Other startup companies, like Why.com of Cambridge, Mass. think better search methods could let them vie with entrenched players such as Yahoo!, the Internet’s most trafficked site.

Yahoo!’s experts have spent thousands of hours categorizing the Web into a helpful hierarchy of topic areas and top-rated sites. But Why.com thinks it may be able to outdo Yahoo! with the help of millions of everyday infonauts.

When the service launches this summer, visitors to Why.com will be able to rate Web sites themselves-giving grades on overall quality, as well as for specifics such as design and ease of use. Sites with the highest ratings will get top-billing in their respective categories.

Eventually, Web surfers will be able to further customize the rankings by giving scores from some people greater weight than others. “You’ll be able to not only rate sites, but rate other people’s ratings,” says Sean Carmody, the 20-year-old president of Why.com, who followed in Bill Gates’ footsteps by taking a leave of absence from Harvard to co-found the company with two classmates last fall. Carmody says Why.com will also sell research reports to Web sites based on the user feedback.

Observers say the new entrants could force first generation portals like Excite and AltaVista to change how they search the Web. “They have made improvements,” says Danny Sullivan, editor of the online publication Search Engine Watch, “but a lot of work needs to be done, and there hasn’t been as much pressure to do it before now.”

Still, better search features may not necessarily be the secret to Internet success. Sullivan points to iWon.com, one of the fastest-growing new search engines, whose success is based primarily on daily cash giveaways of $10,000. “Compelling search is not the best way to attract people,” says Sullivan.

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