European web search engine attacks Google: NPR

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French and German tech groups have created a new web search engine, dubbed Quaero, which they hope will be the European response to the dominance of internet giant Google, based in Silicon Valley in Northern California.



BRAND MADELEINE, facilitator:

It’s DAY TO DAY. I am Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I am Alex Chadwick. Coming up, the first trial before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, a Congolese militia leader accused of having recruited 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 are developing a search engine called Quaero. It’s Latin because I’m looking for. Report by Frank Browning from Paris.

FRANK BROWNING reports:

Much of the impetus for forming the Quaero Project was to create a European alternative to Google and Yahoo. But Philippe Verstichel (ph), who represents Sofra (ph), a French IT company, sees Quaero going much further than that.

Mr. PHILLIPE VERSTICHEL (Sofra): Google’s problem now is quality.

BROWNING: Because it got so big, so fast, says Verstichel, a Google search can produce thousands of referrals.

M. VERSTICHEL: The number of irrelevant documents is quite high.

BROWNING: And that’s mainly thanks to the strengths of Google. With eight billion archived documents, it is the most comprehensive search engine in the world. But when it comes to matching the keywords and the question window to the keywords in those millions of documents, more and more irrelevance appears.

For example, Google offers nine and a half million references to the phrase “iron curtain”. Most of the former are about the Cold War, but it also has pages on wrought iron chairs and curtain rods. The other big issue facing European businesses, according to Verstichel, is the role advertising plays in ranking Google’s search results.

M. VERSTICHEL: If you are not listed in the first 10 to 30 links, you will disappear, because all these documents are mostly American or English, in terms of language. We want to put something in Europe that will allow European companies to be in the top 10 or the top 30.

BROWNING: François Bulldonk (ph), the founder of the French search engine Exalide (ph), is a key player in the Quaero project.

Mr. FRANCOIS BULLDONK (Founder, Exalide): The magic word is navigation. What Exalide is promoting is a new way to access information and really navigate such results.

BROWNING: Here’s how Exalide’s search engine works: Suppose you were looking for a video clip of Neil Armstrong’s moon landing. You type “a 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 humanity. So you take a giant step forward, and the terms are refined further depending on which Apollo program, then which Apollo program, and so on. On a bar at the top are audio and video options.

MR BULLDONK: You start the dialogue with the search engine with a keyword query, then the system tries to understand the query and helps you navigate your search results.

BROWNING: Exalide is set up to coordinate a wide range of Quaero search technologies, but ask California blogger and internet entrepreneur John Battelle what he thinks of all these Quaero ideas, and his response is quick.

Professor JOHN BATTELLE (Visiting Professor of Journalism, UC Berkeley): Not much.

BROWNING: Google and Yahoo, not to mention Microsoft’s intended search engine, Battelle says, are just too far ahead.

Professor BATTELLE: People think Quaero might actually produce something like Google in a year or two, and I just don’t see it. Making a search engine is an extremely complicated task. Making one on a large scale that is competitive with something like Google is extremely expensive and complicated, and I’m sure it is possible. I’m just not sure it’s possible within a time frame that really makes sense for how the market is going right now.

BROWNING: If taking on Google is the game, says John Lervik, CEO of Norway-based Fast Search Engines, Quaero will certainly fail. He says the real opportunity for Quaero is to change the way we use the web and make it more interactive.

MR JOHN LERVIK (CEO, Fast Search): What Quaero can do is develop new search concepts, such as new ways to search in video content, or if I’m interested in finding music or a song that sounds like, say, a Britney Spears song, so they know.

BROWNING: Lervik, whose company manages in-house search technologies for AOL and MapQuest, hopes Quaero will become a global R&D hub for the web, allowing people to search other people’s blogs or even launch science lab sites interactive.

American critic John Battelle, on the other hand, predicts that the government’s heavy hand will condemn Quaero. Currently, it is funded by the French and German governments and hosted by the French Ministry of Defense.

Mr. BATTELLE: I am skeptical of any effort driven by government goals, as opposed to the goals of pure research or consumer-driven capitalist enterprises.

BROWNING: Talks this month between French President Jacques Chirac and German Prime Minister Angela Merkel should determine the way forward for Quaero. For NPR News, I’m Frank Browning in Paris.

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