Search attracts innovation from established firms, startups

Facebook, start-up CrowdEye launching tools; Google developing microblog search tool?

The search business has quickly become a hotbed of activity among a variety of companies in recent weeks.

The new WolframAlpha and Microsoft Bing search engines received a lot of headlines in recent weeks, while several other search announcements appear imminent.

For example, Facebook Inc. says it's testing a new version of its search engine, start-up CrowdEye today launched a real-time social search site and market leader Google Inc. is said to be developing new microblogging search technology.

"Search has become a primary interface for people getting information," said Hadley Reynolds, an analyst at IDC. "It's been like a snowball rolling downhill. I think we're going to be seeing increasing innovations in search. Search simply is being adapted to meet our different needs."

Kari Lee, an engineer at Facebook, disclosed in a blog post yesterday that the social networking firm has started testing a new version of Facebook search with a small group of users. The update focuses on real-time search, which Lee said will enable users to search news feed for posts, pictures, video and links.

"I'm interested in the latest updates on the aftermath of the Iranian election," wrote Lee. "By entering the term 'Iran' in the search field in the upper-right corner of any page on Facebook, I will see up-to-the-minute results from my friends and the Facebook Pages of which I'm a fan, not to mention people who have chosen to make their profile and content available to everyone. I'm able to discover what blogs and news sources my friends are following, what my friends are saying about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and how people in general are reacting to the election results."

Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc., said avid Facebook users could find the new tool irresistible once it becomes generally available. Facebook didn't say when it will ship.

"The ability to get streaming subject search results in Facebook could be a feature that increases the amount of time that people spend there as they monitor friends' posts for interesting tidbits," Olds said. "It's a smart move for Facebook."

Olds pointed out that Google is also rumored to be casting an eye creating a tool for searching social networking sites.

A possible Google microblogging search service that would focus on finding Twitter posts has been the subject of much online chatter in recent days. A Google spokesman wouldn't confirm or deny the talk today. "While we don't have anything to announce today, real-time information is important, and we're looking at different ways to use this information to make Google more useful to our users," the spokesman said in an e-mail message to Computerworld.

Reynolds said the move would make a lot of sense for Google.

"Google wants to be the single storehouse for the world's information and Twitter has to be part of that conversation," he added. "Twitter's own search tool has gotten mixed reviews. Google has been working on this kind of thing for 10 years and Twitter hasn't. There is a learning curve there."

Reynolds did note that the real-time element of such a microblogging search tool would be a significant challenge for developers. When users post comments or information about rapidly changing events, like many are now about the turmoil in Iran, a search engine must have the ability to pick up new posts as they are added.

"You need a lot of computing horsepower and high-performance crawlers and engines to handle continuous posts," he noted.

Meanwhile, Ken Moss, former general manager of Microsoft Corp.'s search business, branched out on his own and today launched CrowdEye, a real-time search engine for Twitter. CrowdEye's search shows results from Twitter's tweets, links and tags.

The promise of such tools would indicate that more innovation is likely on the way, Olds said.

"In a data-rich world, search is king," said Olds. "It's the only way that anyone can sort their way through the huge morass of data on the Internet. Back in the '90's and early 2000's, everyone thought portals were the gateways of the Internet. That was maybe true for a little while but the real gateway is search. There is no question that search will continue to be one of the hottest areas of web development."

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