European Web Search Engine Takes On Google
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, the first trial at the international criminal court in The Hague--a Congo militia leader accused of recruiting child soldiers.
BRAND: But first, Google is a lot of people's first choice among Internet search engines, but some European entrepreneurs and governments say they can do better. They're developing a search engine called Quaero. That's Latin for I seek. Frank Browning reports from Paris.
FRANK BROWNING reporting:
Much of the impetus for forming project Quaero was to create a European alternative to Google and Yahoo. But Phillipe Verstichel(ph), who represents Sofra(ph), A French IT company, sees Quaero going much further than that.
Mr. PHILLIPE VERSTICHEL (Sofra): The problem of Google now is quality.
BROWNING: Because it had grown so big, so fast, Verstichel says, a Google search can produce thousands of references.
Mr. VERSTICHEL: The number of irrelevant documents is quite high.
BROWNING: And that's mainly because of Google's strengths. With eight billion documents archived, it is the world's most comprehensive search engine. But when it comes to matching key words and the question window to key words in those millions of documents, more and more irrelevancies pop up.
For example, Google offers nine-and-a-half million references to the phrase “Iron Curtain.” Most of the first ones are about the Cold War, but it also offers pages on wrought iron chairs and curtain rods. The other big problem facing European firms, Verstichel says, is the role advertising plays in ranking Google's search results.
Mr. VERSTICHEL: If you are not listed in the first 10 to 30 links, you're going to disappear, because all these documents are mainly American or English-based, in terms of language. We want to put something in Europe which will allow European companies to be in the top 10 or top 30.
BROWNING: Francois Bulldonk(ph), the founder of the French search engine Exalide(ph), is a key player in project Quaero.
Mr. FRANCOIS BULLDONK (Founder, Exalide): The magic word is navigation. What Exalide is promoting is a new way to access information and really navigate in such results.
BROWNING: Here's how Exalide's search engine works: suppose you're looking for a video clip of Neil Armstrong's moon landing. You type in, “one small step for man.” You get the usual possible answers in the center of the page, but then on the left side of the screen, you also get a list of qualifiers: small step, positive step, giant step for mankind. So, you choose giant step, and the terms are refined further to Apollo program, and then which Apollo program, and so forth. On a bar across the top are audio and video options.
Mr. BULLDONK: You start the dialogue with the search engine with a key word query, and then the system tries to understand the query and help you navigate in your search results.
BROWNING: Exalide is set coordinate a broad array of Quaero search technologies, but ask California blogger and Internet entrepreneur John Battelle what he thinks of all these Quaero ideas, and his answer comes fast.
Professor JOHN BATTELLE (Visiting Professor of Journalism, UC Berkeley): Not much.
BROWNING: Google and Yahoo, not to mention Microsoft's own planned search engine, Battelle says, are just too far ahead.
Professor BATTELLE: People think Quaero might actually produce something Google-like in a year or two, and I just don't see that. Making a search engine is an extremely complicated task. Making one at scale that is competitive to something like Google is extremely expensive and complicated, and I'm sure it's possible. I'm just not sure that it's possible within a timeframe that really makes any sense for the way the market is moving right now.
BROWNING: If going head to head with Google is the game, says John Lervik, CEO of Norwegian-based Fast Search engines, Quaero will certainly fail. He says Quaero's real opportunity is to change how we use the web and to make it more interactive.
Mr. JOHN LERVIK (CEO, Fast Search): What Quaero can do is to develop new search concepts, like for instance, new ways of searching in video content, or if I'm interested to find a music or song that sounds similar to, let's say, a Britney Spears song, so they know.
BROWNING: Lervik, whose company runs internal search technologies for AOL and MapQuest, hopes that Quaero will turn itself into a global R&D center for the web, enabling people to search through each other's blogs or even to launch interactive, scientific laboratory sites.
American critic, John Battelle, on the other hand, predicts that the heavy hand of government will doom Quaero. Currently, it's funded by the French and German governments, and housed in the French defense ministry.
Mr. BATTELLE: I'm skeptical of efforts driven by the goals of government, as opposed to the goals of either pure research or consumer-driven capitalistic companies.
BROWNING: Ongoing talks this month between French president Jacques Chirac and German Prime Minister Angela Merkel are likely to determine which way Quaero goes. For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning in Paris.