Search providers seek video, find challenges

Internet search providers are reacting to users' rising interest in finding video content on the Web, while acknowledging that there are steep challenges that need to be overcome.

This week, Yahoo and Blinkx both launched video search services, while earlier this month America Online (AOL) revamped its Singingfish multimedia search engine to make it more attractive and easier for users.

Video content demand and availability have both grown as a direct result of the rise of broadband Internet connections. "More than half of consumers watching videos online have broadband. Broadband adoption is reaching critical mass in the U.S.," said Joe Wilcox, a Jupiter Research analyst.

As a result, users are turning more and more to search engines to look for video content, and finding that general Web search services just don't deliver good enough results. "It's very difficult to find streaming content through traditional search engines, and more and more consumers are interested in this type of content," Wilcox said.

This dissatisfaction with general Web search engines is probably one big reason why AOL's multimedia search site Singingfish (www.singingfish.com) saw its site's usage explode from several thousand queries per day in 2003 to over 700,000 queries per day currently, even when the site wasn't designed to attract mass market users. Unlike the Yahoo site, which focuses strictly on video, Singingfish also indexes audio files.

The usage spike led AOL to revamp the site's interface and, starting this month, for the first time to actively try to make it attractive to mass market users, Karen Howe, Singingfish's vice president and general manager, told IDG News Service in early December. Previously, the site was intended for search providers interested in licensing Singingfish's multimedia search technology, whose users include Microsoft, RealNetworks and AOL.

Still, challenges abound for search providers that want to index video content.

First, many video files have little or no metadata, while industry-wide there is a lack of metadata standards for video content. Metadata is information about a file, such as its date of creation, size, owner and content description. In the offline world, library cards are examples of metadata.

Even when video files have proper metadata, it is of little value if a user is looking for a specific quote in a news report and has to view an entire clip in order to find the desired snippet.

Also, because video files tend to be very large, requiring a lot of storage space and processing power, they get deleted very often from Web servers, so a search engine may have indexed video files a week ago that today are no longer available.

Then there is the issue of ownership that keeps much sought-after video content, such as full-length television programs and movies, unavailable for obvious reasons: the owners expect to generate revenue from distributing that content online.

Finally, a big open question is how search providers will make money off of their video search services.

Blinkx, a search startup that is generally considered a maverick because it often steals its bigger competitors' thunder, launched this week Blinkx TV. This search service is focused on television content and works around the metadata problem: Blinkx transcribes all the video clips it indexes, permitting searches that are precise in serving up the content the user is looking for. "Our benefit is we let you search into the video clip what people are saying," said Suranga Chandratillake, Blinkx's founder.

In this way, Blinkx TV is ahead of the test video search engine Yahoo launched this week at http://video.search.yahoo.com. Currently, Yahoo is using metadata and other contextual information around the video clip to index it. But Yahoo plans to move to what it calls "deep indexing" in the future.

"That's on our product road map," said Bradley Horowitz , Yahoo's director of media search. "In this release, we're using metadata and contextual techniques, but in the future we'll (also) use techniques such as speech recognition as applied to the video content."

Speech recognition would allow Yahoo to index what is being said in the video clip.

Horowitz declined to say when Yahoo may provide "deep indexing" but pointed out that as the founder of Virage, which specialized in this type of technology, "I am personally very familiar with that technology and its deployment, so you can extrapolate that it's not going to be very long before we're applying it."

Interestingly, Virage was sold to Autonomy, which in turn licenses its technology to Blinkx. Horowitz left Autonomy and joined Yahoo about eight months ago.

Singingfish doesn't do this type of speech recognition and transcription on the video files it indexes, an AOL spokeswoman said.

While aiming for "deep indexing," Yahoo isn't giving up on metadata. Along with the test video search service, it launched an initiative called Media RSS, a syndication format based on RSS (Really Simple Syndication) and designed to make it easier for Yahoo to index -- and for providers to contribute -- video content.

Another Blinkx advantage is that Blinkx TV is both a Web site (www.blinkx.tv) and part of the company's PC-based search tool, also called Blinkx. As such, Blinkx TV is integrated with the PC tool's Smart Folders technology, which lets users set up folders that get dynamically populated with both local hard drive and Internet files.

Where Yahoo and AOL clearly have an advantage over Blinkx is in the partnerships sphere for video content, since they have been striking up deals for movie clips and television content for years, while Blinkx is a small startup which launched its first product in July.

Blinkx, whose TV content partners include CNN, National Geographic, The History Channel, HBO and ESPN, wants to grow its partner stable "into the hundreds," Chandratillake said. Yahoo's Horowitz said his company continues committed to expanding continually its already sizable multimedia partner ecosystem.

AOL's Howe and Yahoo's Horowitz acknowledge that video content tends to disappear quickly from Web servers, creating empty links in search engine indexes, but both executives say their respective engineering teams are constantly working on addressing this problem in better ways.

Another issue that Singingfish is prioritizing is in integrating multimedia search results with regular search results in a way that makes contextual sense, so that its users don't have to conduct separate searches and collate results manually, Howe said.

Meanwhile, Yahoo's Horowitz and Blinkx's Chandratillake agree that for their companies these are early days in multimedia search, and that as such, they don't have in place revenue models for this type of search.

Some possibilities would be to serve ads or give users a TV clip for free with the option to view the entire program for a fee, Chandratillake said.

Overall, providers getting into video search shouldn't expect to see any significant revenue from it for the moment, said Niki Scevak, a Jupiter Research analyst. "The attention the search providers are giving to this space is motivated by solving these technical challenges, rather than by revenue opportunities at this initial stage," he said.

Meanwhile, neither Microsoft's MSN Search division nor Google currently offer specific multimedia search services. Microsoft licenses Singingfish technology to power audio and video searches in its media player software and accompanying Web site (www.windowsmedia.com.).

Yahoo also owns the search engines Altavista (www.altavista.com) and AllTheWeb (www.alltheweb.com), both of which let users search for video content and audio files. The Yahoo video search test site unveiled this week incorporates technology from Altavista and AllTheWeb, as well as from the main Yahoo search engine, along with new technologies being developed, a Yahoo spokeswoman said.

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Juan Carlos Perez

IDG News Service

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