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Excite Metasearch Serves Up Equal Doses of Innovation and Monetization

By Andrew Goodman, 5/11/2002

Infospace, the undisputed world heavyweight champion
in metasearch, has rolled out a new search engine under the target=_blank href="http://www.excite.com">Excite
Metasearch brand
name.


Recall that Infospace, which also operates metasearch engines Dogpile and
Metacrawler, acquired the traffic and brand and various other related assets of
Excite.com following this formerly grand portal's demise. In concert with iWon, a
company which in turn purchased a certain percentage of those assets and changed
its company name to "Excite Networks," Infospace management has installed a "New Excite
Team" whose mission, according to press releases, is to "return Excite to its
former glory." Who knew that running an Internet company was the latter-day
equivalent of running an entire civilization.


While the Excite.com site was in transition to new ownership, a pure pay-per-click
search engine (based on Overture results) was installed by Infospace as a
temporary measure. Last week, the new Excite Metasearch came on the scene,
blending a number of the technological elements that have made Metacrawler such
a hit with some new, custom twists.


Company PR suggested this was as much a business model story as it was a
search technology story; Infospace says it expects to recoup all of the
investment in the Excite acquisition in a quarter or two. But according to York
Baur, Executive VP of Wireline and Broadband, the search engine rollout has
something unique to offer to consumers, if not necessarily to most so-called
search enthusiasts. As metasearch evolved, we saw sites
like Metacrawler and Dogpile placing an increasing reliance on paid
results, to the extent that consumer confidence in the quality of results waned.
With Excite Metasearch, according to Baur, Infospace is trying "to do a better
job of balancing quality and advertising."


On one hand, this balance is positive for the user. Excite Metasearch
apparently relies on a blending of paid and non-paid search results, with the
idea being that informational queries might show fewer sponsored results and
consumer-oriented queries might show more of these results.


On the other hand, "balance" is a slippery concept. From an initial test
drive, though, that appears to be an apt description of the reality. My
consumer-oriented query "compare barbecues" served up a hefty helping of Inktomi
results (checked by cross referencing with Inktomi backfill at AOL and
Overture.com). But I suspect that this Inktomi presence is merely heavy in this
case because Overture actually has no bidders for that term (as can be verified
at Overture.com). A search for "real estate broker" serves up a blend of
results, with the first six at least being Overture paid results.


On the informational query "Canadian Senate retirement age," there are
certainly no bids to be found on Overture or anywhere else. Excite Metasearch,
hearteningly, lists a Hansard (transcripts of parliamentary debates) excerpt housed at  href="http://www.gc.ca">http://www.gc.ca site as its first result, and
it's obviously not just grabbing this from Inktomi in a vain attempt to bring up
Overture. (The Hansard debates themselves prove the point that some of
these unelected senators are more apt to wander off topic, doze off,
etc. than the MP's in the House of Commons next door.) In any case, this result
was tough to map to any of the search engines that go into Excite Metasearch
results. Clearly, it's a complex brew where particularly useful results may rise
to the top in metasearch even where they aren't near the top in any one
engine.


Baur alludes to some new ways that Excite Metasearch allows the cream to rise
to the top of the search results. One proprietary "meta-trick" boils down to the
metasearch designers' assessments of the relative quality of the underlying
search engines. The results from one engine may be given more weight than those
from another. In addition, adds Baur, they "look at duplication of results
from multiple providers... if a page appears in several search engine results
then it will probably rise in position in Excite Metasearch." To some extent,
this feature appears to follow the lead of href="http://www.ixquick.com">Ixquick, which pioneered the idea of
ranking sites higher if they scored in the top ten in several different search
engines. Ixquick weights each engine's "vote" equally and ranks sites based on a
"star system."


One thing metasearch enthusiasts will notice is the lack of any delineation
of which search results come from which engines. Infospace's goal in
developing a metasearch product to go under the Excite brand was to
"popularize metasearch to make it more mainstream," says Baur. Mainstream users,
goes the theory, don't want to be bogged down with detail, don't
want to look under the hood. They just want to drive the car.


The lack of clear notations about which results come from which sources
extends to paid results. Most major portals and search destinations clearly
separate the sponsored listings from regular search results; Excite Metasearch
makes this separation invisible to the user. To some of us, that seems
dishonest. To be sure, Excite Metasearch's claim that results are
customized to show fewer paid results for informational queries seems to hold up
under scrutiny. Then again, if you type an informational query on a
pay-per-click search engine like Overture.com, you'll get non-paid Inktomi
results, so this isn't such a tall order to fulfil. Inktomi results, of
course, are indirectly influenced by a paid inclusion model. Pure
search results are getting harder and harder to come by no matter
where you turn.


The fact is, the market for Internet search is divided into two worlds: that
of search enthusiasts and purists, and that of the broader consumer market. On
portals like Excite, you find a lot of people who essentially use the
Internet for fun and diversion. The latter group may be discriminating about
search quality, but only to a point. And it must be acknowledged that this
latter "world" is larger than the small world of search engine purists.


It was this separation (loyal search engine purists vs. the rest of the
world) that led AltaVista to set up a special site called Raging Search to
cater to its enthusiast audience, while moving forward to make AltaVista.com
more mainstream. (This didn't work, since AltaVista was the brand that the loyal
enthusiasts identified with, and continued to want to identify
with.) And it may drive Google's decisions in the future: Google
may in the future be willing to deploy one style of result (blended
paid and non-paid results) for big consumer portal partners, while holding the
line on Google.com, sticking with "pure" search results and clearly
delineated ads off to the side. Time will tell.


To me, the Excite Metasearch story still looks like a business model
story; a successful investment by Infospace in a known Internet
brand name at a discount price. But there is nonetheless some innovation and no
small passion for relevance under the hood. Excite Metasearch results look
nothing like Metacrawler or Dogpile results, even if they leverage the expertise
and core technologies involved in producing those award-winning metasearch
engines. "The New Excite Team" has been busy.


Andrew Goodman is Editor of Traffick.com and an avid metasearcher. 

 

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