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Google Digs Down Under

Google has bought the rights to a search engine algorithm that its creators predict will revolutionize the way people search for information on the Internet.

The search giant snapped up the rights to "Orion" from Australia's University of New South Wales for an undisclosed sum. Google has also hired Ori Allon, a 26-year-old PhD student from the university who developed the algorithm.

"Google has purchased the assets of Orion and Ori Allon is now an employee," said Barry Schnitt, a Google spokesperson. "We're thrilled to have him here."

Schnitt refused to comment on what projects Allon is currently working on or Google's plans for Orion.

Analysts say that, ground-breaking technology or not, it's likely that users will experience Orion more as a refinement of Google rather than a revolution.

"I'm sure that there's some value in Orion because apparently MSN and Yahoo were interested in it as well," said Greg Sterling, lead analyst at Oakland, California based Sterling Market Intelligence.

"Google is exploring a number of upgrades to its algorithm. Probably they acquired this to incorporate into what they're doing and to take it off the market in terms of competitors."

If it works as described, Orion would allow researchers to get a complete overview of their topic quickly without ever having to leave a search engine site.

Google and other search engines typically return a list of Web pages that contain the keywords used in a search string.

According to a press release issued by the University of New South Wales last September, the Orion algorithm returns a list of pages that contain content about topics closely related to the keywords.

The algorithm also extracts and displays a relevant excerpt of the cited pages on the search engine's site.

The release describes the search engine as "a new way of exploring the Web that could revolutionize existing search engines."

Israeli-born Allon, who completed a Bachelor and Masters degree at Monash University in Melbourne before moving to the University of NSW for his Ph.D work, isn't talking to the media about Orion or his work with Google, citing contractual obligations.

However, he has said in the university press release that the concept of search engine's providing chunks of information rather than simply links to information came from his supervisor, Eric Martin, of the University of NSW's computer science department.

Allon came to Sydney in March 2005 to work on a search engine project. Six months later the team announced it had developed Orion.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the university retains the intellectual property rights to Orion, "and that could mean a steady flow of royalty payments if the process is eventually integrated into Google's search engine."

Andy Beal, CEO of Fortune Interactive, a search marketing consulting firm based in Raleigh, NC said that the debut of Orion could happen within six months to a year.

"The thing is, we might not necessarily see a readily identifiable use of this technology," Beal said. "Google has a habit of buying small companies and integrating their technology, without actually rolling out a standalone product as a result of the acquisition."

Beal pointed out that the acquisition of Keyhole led to Google Earth, a standalone product, but said that was a rare use of a Google acquisition.

Kaltix Corp. and Applied Semantics, two companies acquired by Google, offered personalized and context sensitive search technologies. Their technology was rolled into existing Google products, he said.

Beale expects that's what will happen with Orion, and the technology will be used to improve Google's existing interface.

"The press release says Google is focusing on core search projects," he said. "Everything they've done recently has been focused on ancillary products. It's nice to see an announcement where Google is interested in improving its core search technology."

But, he added, "while they have acquired the technology behind Orion, what they've really done is hired a smart guy."