Search engines advance into multimedia scans

By Brian Bergstein AP Business Writer
Monday October 29, 2001

Refinements helping Web sites stay current 


SAN FRANCISCO – Search engines have always been among the Web’s most popular destinations. Then came multimedia – and frustration. 

How do you find music with a keyword search? 

In a sunny San Francisco loft, a tiny company called Friskit Inc. has spent the last two years honing a search engine that scans the Internet for songs and music videos available to Web surfers for free but often difficult to locate. 

Other search sites also are seeking refinements they hope will make them indispensable in the multimedia age. As more and more Web users get broadband access, such tools are sure to become attractive. 

Google recently began offering searches of images on the Web, rather than just words. Google performs that feat not by analyzing an image itself but by reading the text labeling the picture. 

Researchers at the “Googleplex,” the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., also are looking for ways to more directly connect Web surfers to online databases – and to run voice-activated searches from wireless devices. 

With better search techniques over handheld computers, for example, someone in a grocery store pondering an unfamiliar item could instantly call up product information or compare prices, said Craig Silverstein, Google’s director of technology. 

“Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” Silverstein said. 

Friskit is based on the notion that many users want links straight to a certain experience – such as hearing a song – rather than to static information. 

Though analysts note that several other multimedia search engines have come and gone without leaving much of a mark, Friskit’s executives hope to cash in by licensing their technology to Web portals, music sites, record labels or companies that want to catalogue their multimedia presentations. 

“Whether you want to find a Moby track, a Steve Jobs interview or an Osama bin Laden interview, you should be able to find it with one click,” said Jeff Morgen, Friskit’s chief operating officer. 

Morgen and Aviv Eyal, Friskit’s co-founder and technology guru, are aiming at the rapidly changing market for online music, which gained prominence with the popularity of Napster but has been bogged down in legal squabbles over copyright protection. 

Rather than offering downloads a la Napster, Friskit believes it can stay out of the fray by connecting users to streaming content, essentially making it a customized Internet radio station. 

Bill Rose, who has researched the market as vice president and general manager of Arbitron Webcast Services, said a multimedia search engine offers Web surfers more choice and control than current Internet broadcast sites, which often have a more limited pool of available content. 

Friskit can lump songs by genre or by musician, so users don’t have to be precise in what they’re looking for. It also accounts for common spelling errors, so it will ask if you meant to hear The Beatles when you entered “Beetles.” 

But even with such thoughtful features, it appears certain that Friskit’s life will get helter-skelter. 

At least one competitor with similar multimedia search technology, Seattle-based Singingfish Inc., already has signed partnerships with RealNetworks Inc. and Inktomi Corp. and is pursuing deals with the big portals as well. 

Through its connections as a subsidiary of Thomson Multimedia, a French consumer electronics giant, Singingfish hopes to become the search engine for the next generation of wireless devices and home entertainment systems. 

Analysts believe those kinds of partnerships will be essential. 

Many people prefer music downloads to stand-alone streaming media sites, since downloads tend to offer better quality and can be transferred to portable devices, said Lee Black, an analyst with Webnoize Inc. 

Singingfish’s president and co-founder, Mike Behlke, envisions future search engines delivering several kinds of results at once: some links to documents, some pictures, some direct connections to relevant streaming media. 

Danny Sullivan, editor of the SearchEngineWatch.com online newsletter, makes the same prediction. But he believes that at least in the short term, companies like Friskit and Singingfish will have trouble getting many Web sites to pay for their technology. 

The reason: even the largest Web sites are pressed for cash these days. 

“They’ve got enough trouble saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got one single program you’ve got to have – will you shell out $9.95 for this single program?”’ Sullivan said. “People don’t pay for any kind of search at the moment.”