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Search Chiefs: International Alliances are Key

The heads of the six major search engines--AltaVista, Excite, HotBot, Infoseek, Lycos and Yahoo--all agree that international traffic will be key to their growth, and international partnerships will be the key to getting that traffic.

The six appeared Wednesday at a single panel at the opening session of the Chicago @d:tech Conference and Exposition.

"In three to five years, the international market will be bigger than the domestic market, and we're investing very largely in it," said Harry Motro, CEO of Infoseek, which now offers its services in 10 languages.

Bob Hult, general manager of AltaVista, said a third of his page views are coming from outside the U.S., up from 20 percent a year ago. Next week AltaVista will begin offering Asian users the ability to view searches in Unicode, the method by which Asian-language characters are generated on computers.

HotBot recently launched a sister service in Japan using alliances with local companies. Lycos has entered into a partnership with European media giant Bertelsmann AG. "It's easy to translate a service," said Lycos CEO Bob Davis. "Trying to add a local flavor is where the challenge is."

Tim Koogle of Yahoo! predicted that the ratio of North American to international traffic will flip-flop in the next few years. Yahoo offers versions of its directory customized for Asia, Australia & New Zealand, Canada, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Ireland

Excite offers customized versions for Australia, France, Germany , Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the U.K.

The executives from the six major search engines collectively wield more muscle than any media property on the Internet: Five of the six services fall into the top 10 most visited domains on the Web, according to Relevant Knowledge, while the sixth, HotBot, is number 18.

They strove, with some success, to differentiate their goals, metaphors, business models and corporate identities. Beth Vanderslice, president of HotBot's parent Wired Digital, reaffirmed the service's dedication to "search and only search," compared with the efforts of Yahoo, Infoseek, Excite, and Lycos to be content aggregators and "community" destinations.

Tim Koogle, chief executive of Yahoo, harked back to the company's original mission statement in 1995, "to be the only place in the world people have to go to get connected to anything or anybody"--a goal which he said no longer sounds as outlandish as it did orignally.

The group was relatively quiet about the $70 million deal struck between Netscape and Excite earlier this week. Under that deal, Excite will serve as at least one of the search engines for Netscape's site.

Without referring to it directly, Excite CEO George Bell said that if a company assumes the market is still growing, now is the time to invest. "The nature and scope of the opportunity is expanding before our eyes," he said.

After the session, Motro of Infoseek, which had been favored by outside observers to win the Netscape deal, suggested that the price was too high. "I can be on the Netscape portal without paying that money," he said. "There are lots of other ways to spend $70 million to build traffic."