Microsoft Pulling a Fast One?

Did you know that there is a search engine out there that is superior to Google? And that Microsoft will shortly purchase it? Obviously, all of this is important in the context of the take-over bid for Yahoo! that Microsoft announced just over week ago, a move that was widely interpreted as being a challenge to Google. Peter Buhr, writing in Die Zeit (Pincer-Attack on Google), sheds some light on what could be one important aspect of the proposed deal that I haven’t seen any coverage of in any English-language forum.

You can actually try out this other search engine for yourself to see what you think: it’s at AlltheWeb, and happens to be owned by Yahoo!, having first been sold to Overture in 2003 whereupon Overture itself was sold to Yahoo! in 2004. According to Buhr, the main problem that has held AlltheWeb back from greater public acceptance has simply been marketing – people never knew about it because PR has never been a specialty of the engineers there.

Get that problem solved, and who knows what could happen? You think that Google could never be dethroned in the area of search? Then, as Buhr points out, you clearly don’t remember AltaVista (or, more likely, you weren’t yet on the Net before 1999). That was actually the Net’s top search engine back towards the end of the last century, before succumbing to the “portal” fallacy that you needed to surround the search interface with mail, news, weather, stock quotes, lotto, and ads for everything from auto tires to kitchen sinks. Interestingly, AltaVista still exists – it was also sold in 2003 to Overture which, as we learned above, was itself sold in 2004 to Yahoo!

But the point of Microsoft’s move is not AlltheWeb per se, but rather the firm that created it, a Norwegian company called Fast. Fast specializes in custom-building search engines for whatever purpose, for whatever customer – and, according to to Buhr, its search engines have regularly been beating Google in market-share for some time in Scandinavia. Microsoft started buying up Fast’s shares at the beginning of the year, and will soon complete the acquisition; Fast can then proceed to work its magic on Microsoft’s own search engine – whatever Microsoft then chooses to call it, whether Life Search , Windows Live, or whatever else.

As for Yahoo!, Buhr writes that it is attractive to Microsoft mainly for its brand and the allegiance of many millions of users that brings with it. In any event, those with a strong personal and/or business interest in these search engine maneuverings will soon get the opportunity to find out more about Microsoft’s acquisition of Fast and its connection to the bid for Yahoo!, namely at the FASTforward ’08 search technologies conference in Orlando, FL, from 18 to 20 February. (Despite the conference’s name, FAST is not staging the conference, nor is it even a sponsor, although Microsoft is. Nonetheless, it’s a sure thing that the issues described in Buhr’s Die Zeit column – again, which are likely of crucial import to Microsoft’s efforts to take over Yahoo! – will be a leading topic of discussion.)

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