French firm enters U.S. search market

Undaunted by Google's clout, Exalead eyes government search customers

When one company takes such a strong foothold in a market that the company's name is commonly used as a verb to describe its function, one might think that the barriers to entry for competitors would be high.

A French company called Exalead doesn't see it that way. Although Google seems to have the name recognition mojo in the search market, Exalead has released exalead one:search 4.0, an enterprise search platform for U.S. government agencies and businesses.

Francois Bourdoncle, co-founder and chief executive officer at Exalead, said he does not fear Google's power because the search market is just beginning to develop.

"We believe that the current market opportunity, which is about $500 million a year, is at 1 percent of what it's going to be," Bourdoncle said. "We believe the market will be $50 billion in five to 10 years. Search is a market to be created."

Exalead is not Google's only competition, he added.

"Their software solutions are good for consumers, but I see them as inappropriate for the enterprise," he said of Google. "I think their approach is very simple, but more than simple, it's simplistic."

Exalead has had about five years of success in Europe, cultivating customers among private companies and government agencies in France and Italy, he said.

Earlier this year, the Paris-based firm created Exalead Inc., a subsidiary in New York, to tap the U.S. market. Although the company does not yet have a dedicated federal team, Bourdoncle said, Exalead is looking for people with U.S. government experience.

Tower of Babel

Steven Newcomb, a consultant at Coolheads Consulting, said that although the search market has room for new entrants, many search technology companies are approaching the problem in the wrong way.

Enterprise search is a key component to information sharing, which means it suffers from the same cultural issues that plague other aspects of information sharing. Any sort of search technology can bring enormous amounts of data under a single umbrella. The problem, he said, is that it is a single umbrella.

Newcomb invoked the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel to explain his objection. Any large organization has many groups of people with their own needs and priorities. In effect, they speak different languages.

"It's impossible for somebody to come up with something, anything, and expect everybody to always use it," Newcomb said. "These top-down solutions cannot solve the fundamental problems for information sharing. You can't build a culture from above. It has to come from below."

Search-makers reach deep

Exalead boasts a number of features that make the search technology a better choice for agencies and other organizations, Bourdoncle said. The underlying idea was to allow users to conduct searches in the same way that people think. He described it as "serendipity, and trial and error."

Using Exalead's search technology is like browsing the Web. The initial search can retrieve results in several categories. The user can then narrow the categories or even branch off in a new direction, refocusing the search as it progresses.

"It's often the case that you start a query with words that will not occur in the document that is of interest to you," Bourdoncle said.

Other search companies are similarly trying to distinguish themselves. Earlier this month, Convera announced that it is about to launch Excalibur, a Web search engine with more than 4 billion Web pages indexed, as a complement to its RetrievalWare enterprise search service.

Convera has created a partner program for government agencies that want to use Excalibur for Web searches with greater security than other commercial search engines can offer.

Patrick Condo, Convera's president and CEO, said Excalibur retrieves and categorizes information from deep within the search results -- information the user might have missed if it were presented page by page. Excalibur's search results are presented based on context and relevance. Google and some other search engines list results based on a site's popularity, often with sponsored links at the top.

Other search tools, including Vivisimo's Clusty, also categorize results.

"We believe we have created a unique search engine," Condo said. "Our goal is simple: to provide end-users with relevant and useful answers, not just a list of popular results."

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Are we searching up the wrong tree?

Steven Newcomb, a consultant at Coolheads Consulting, said he believes the solution to information retrieval problems is not what most companies are offering. If the barriers to sharing information are found in the people within an organization rather than in the technology, he said, the solution is technology that understands the cultural differences among groups.

"What we have doesn't work very well," he said. "The quantity of information is increasing at an accelerating rate. At the same time, we have extreme urgency for information sharing for anti-terrorism, for business intelligence, for maximizing global interdependence."

Newcomb advocates the use of topic maps, an approach to organizing information to simplify uncovering the web of connections between one piece of information and another. That can enable search tools to find relevant files even if the person running the search doesn't type in the keywords that would provide a precise match.

"To send you a file is nothing," he said. "To find the file after I sent it is serious. You may not know any of the words that I used. The words themselves hide the information."

-- Michael Hardy

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