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Saturday, June 20, 1998 Published at 01:11 GMT 02:11 UK


Desperately seeking search engines

Search for a star engine - it may be the key to Net success

By Chris Nuttall, BBC Internet correspondent

Try searching for how much search engines have been in the news lately and you may be swamped by a deluge of results.

How about this refined listing?:

  • May 4: Lycos announces a major alliance with the AT&T telecommunications company to develop a portal site
  • May 4: Excite is to provide Netscape with a branded Search for its Netcenter portal site
  • May 18: The directory Yahoo! makes Inktomi its default search engine replacing AltaVista
  • June 2: AltaVista unveils a makeover that makes it look more like a portal site
  • June 10: Inktomi's share price doubles on the first day of trading for its Initial Public Offering
  • June 18: Disney buys 43 per cent of Infoseek

Clearly, this year's fad for portal sites where content, free e-mail, chat and search engines are aggregated to encourage visitors not to stray away, is largely responsible for the frenetic activity surrounding search engines.

The main constructors of these high-rise portals are companies such as Microsoft and Netscape who have made their sites the default Home page in their browsers, the directory/search engine companies such as Yahoo! and Excite, and now, increasingly, media and communications companies such as Disney, NBC and AT&T who want to muscle in on the action.

Findings about Search

So have we seen the end of the pure and simple Search site?

"Search engine sites have been like train stations or airports in the past," Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch, told News online, "People go through them to get to other places. But by becoming a main portal, they can direct people better and towards their own content, and make more money."

"Push was the buzzword of last year, but it fizzled out. Portals are not going away. They are not new either. They are just providing more for people now."

"At the end of 1996, the search engines were predicting only two or three of them would be left by now. But instead there are these mergers happening with other players."

Plain Old Search

And then there is Inktomi, making a virtue of being just a highly-rated stripped-down search engine, and powering the sites of Microsoft, Hotbot and now Yahoo!

"Inktomi feels like it is being very wise," said Danny. "Search is an essential component and it is saying 'We have a generic search solution for you and we are not going to compete with you, we are the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) of Search.'"

He feels that unless the other search engines can make themselves distinctive enough, they may struggle.

Creating new directories

Meanwhile, the directories formula popularised by Yahoo!, where users can find what they want by subject listings, is proving to be an evergreen, with companies such as Infoseek, AltaVista and LookSmart emphasising a directory look to their sites.

But the fact that visitors go straight to the categories that interest them hints at a possible flaw in the portal model.

There has been a marked growth in the number of smaller speciality search and directory sites - ones that collate just medical or technology or Internet news for example.

If push underestimated the intelligence of Net users who wanted to go out and get their information, perhaps portals are wrong in thinking they can satisfy the palate of an increasingly discerning audience with their all-you-can-eat offers.

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