Specialty Search Firm Surveys Changing Landscape

BOSTON — How many search engines do you think are out there? A few dozen? A few hundred? Think again.

While heavy hitters like Google dominate headlines here at Search Engine Strategies, there are about 3,700 specialty search engines competing in an industry where technical advancements, paid options and consolidation are rapidly changing the dynamics.

Among them is Singingfish. The 4-year-old firm uses spidering, content metadata extraction, and search and relevance ranking, plus proprietary techniques to manage its index of 35 million audio and visual files.

“We are aggressively looking at our play,” CEO Karen N. Howe told internetnews.com. “We have reinvented ourselves in the last six months, moving from straight licensing to a hybrid of licensing and paid inclusion, with an eye toward paid placement.”

It’s never spent a dollar on advertising, but Singingfish’s Seattle neighbors have taken notice. Its technology is currently in RealNetworks’ RealOne Player and Microsoft’s Window Media Player (9 Series). In the portal space, Singingfish powers Sympatico-Lycos in Canada and Toshiba’s FreshEye in Japan.

The company this week also introduced paid inclusion listing for advertisers and marketers to reach targeted users.

The program, available through Marketleap, a San Francisco online marketing firm, provides two links, the stream itself and an associated landing page, with additional information or advertising.

Singingfish estimates that more than 20 percent of all Web search queries can be best satisfied with audio and/or video results. In addition, media researcher Arbitron says users of Internet audio and video are twice as likely to click on advertising and purchase products online. Singingfish plans to add paid placement by year’s end.

“We think this would be a great fit for the entertainment industry,” said Howe, noting that a studio could run a paid inclusion program that gets a DVD release in front of users.

For now, Howe lists her No. 1 challenge as getting the attention of the major portals, which for the most part control the search market. SingingFish’s biggest competitors were the audio and video search options offered by AltaVista and FAST, which were both recently bought by Overture. The company’s established relationship with Microsoft could open doors at MSN, Howe said.

A further challenge will be getting the ad agencies that serve as the gateway to large advertisers’ budgets interested in the marketing possibilities offered by paid inclusion and, later, paid listings.

Another, perhaps less obvious avenue, is enterprise search. Companies that have a lot of training Webcasts or online conferences need to organize that content so it can be easily found. Howe, formerly with Motorola, said companies in the technology, pharmaceutical, or biotech space could use a customized Singingfish offering.

In addition to the flexibility of its offering, Singingfish’s corporate situation might also shape the company’s future. In late 2000, the firm, once a venture-backed startup, was bought by Thomson, the French consumer electronics company that owns the RCA brand (not to be confused with the Canadian financial information giant).

To date, Thomson has treated Singingfish as a research and development unit steering it to design a system to search and manage different content types on digital, interactive TVs and game centers. Although it sets financial goals, Howe said the Paris company is generally hands-off.

Recent buying sprees by Yahoo! and Overture have Howe and leaders of smaller firms thinking more seriously about how their niche offerings might fit in a broader search platform. Howe said she’s been told 40 percent of Google searchs are related to entertainment — a portion that’s likely to exist at most search sites. As it is now, Google users searching “Madonna” cannot specifically search for audio or video clips.

While she expects portals like Yahoo! and MSN to move toward offering multimedia search soon, Howe declined to say whether Singingfish would welcome a takeover bid now, or if she felt a few more years of product development and customer wins would be the right course.

“It’s an intersting game we’re involved in; keep focus narrow enough, but to be able to tack the boat and make mid-course corrections,” Howe said. “I think we’re small enough to make those adjustments.”

Editor’s note: Search Engine Strategies is produced by Jupitermedia, the parent of this Web site.

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