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Other Wonders of Search, Web Services

We interrupt our regularly scheduled obsession with Microsoft's response to its Web services/Google challenge to talk about other search challengers moving into bigger spotlights.

Microsoft and Google would be wise to interrupt their obsessions with each other and study these companies. We're betting they already have.

On the enterprise search front, France's Exalead has just opened its U.S. headquarters in New York and is rolling out its unified search platform for desktop, intranet or Web search in North American markets.

The search platform is truly one of the easiest desktop search platforms to deploy. It's easy to administer and is incredibly intuitive in the results it pulls up for you, whether from the Web, your intranet, or that gaggle of files on your computer.

What's so different with this compared to, say Google's enterprise search? François Bourdoncle, cofounder and chief executive officer of Exalead, says its search technology is designed to work the way our brains work. That is, by serendipity, such as how we might start a thought process, then change our minds to something else, then perhaps circle back to that original search idea. The search follows along and starts to think like you do.

Exalead features indexing that helps you search visually, and in real-time; it reacts to documents right away, such as e-mails, or recent PDF downloads.

Plus, you get a document preview pane that shows your search results with your relevant terms highlighted. You don't need to launch the document in order to prove that your search results worked. It's there in the viewing pane already. Other search players are offering this, but I would argue not as well.

Another feature that mimics our brains is Exalead's "sounds like" way of matching search strings that aren't quite spot on. Also, if the information you're looking for isn't written in your native language, an automatic feature to translate the document in the preview pane is at the ready.

It's compatible with 64-bit processor architectures as well as 32-bit operating systems and it works with Windows, Unix and Linux. Perhaps most important, it offers enterprise class security. Bourdoncle said it does not keep cached versions of older documents or recently visited files that have been deleted.

If you haven't tried it out yet, the free trial is worth the trip. You might be surprised at how effectively this version digs deeper into the Web for you, and goes beyond the ranking algorithms results, not to mention how it finds stuff you didn't even know you had on your computer.

Exhibit B in the increasing race to improve search is a company called iStockphoto. Not only is this online stock image outfit breathing new life into the concept of micropayments, it is offering an innovative new search feature that promises to make life easier for design professionals. Less-skilled design folks will be amazed at what it can do for them, too.

(The parent company of this publication, Jupitermedia, is also in the stock image business but does not have a relationship with iStockphoto.)

The founders of iStockphoto, based in Calgary, Canada, call their search feature CopySpace. It works like this: When you search for a photo in the company's archive, you can also set parameters on where you need to put text or branding information on or around that image.

As the founders explain, let's say you want to find an image of a woman's face, with a certain background color, look, expression, and you need room for text in the top left corner, and room for copy along the right hand side.

You enter the keywords, then use the CopySpace 9x9 grid to stipulate where you need the free space to go. Select three cells across the top of the grid, or three down the side, and up comes the image, ready for your branding brilliance. You can also stipulate gray areas where both image and text can overlap.

You can use the search feature with keywords, color, and/or image size searches. This will certainly speak to advertising and creative professionals as they noodle where they should place their text.

The search function is a key feature to get more people to use iStockphoto.com images, but it's also available for licensing.

If that's not enough to get the search experts to sit up, iStockphoto is also getting notice for its approach of offering royalty-free stock images for as little as a buck. It counts some 20,000 contributing artists helping to build out its photo archive.

They're not the only ones out there giving Web services new meaning with innovative search. But their products are enjoying powerful word of mouth from customers.

So, after this quick look at Exalead's run in the U.S., and iStockphoto's image searching innovations, we now return you to the ongoing obsession over Microsoft and Google -- only with a little more perspective about the power of the Web and the growing possibilities with new search innovators.

Erin Joyce is executive editor of internet.com's news channel