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Rupert Murdoch seeks dysfunctional search engine

Blinkx, Technorati in the frame

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With a billion dollars to spend on his new Fox Interactive Unit, Rupert Murdoch is going shopping.

Last month he picked up web community Intermix Media for $580 million, and followed-up by adding insider sports news network Scout Media for $60 million.

This time search sites Technorati and Blinkx are in the frame - the LA Times reporting that News Corp. is in negotiations with the latter. But just as with the rumors about News Corp. buying Skype, it hardly rings true.

News Corp is a content business, and, as everyone knows, a reasonably successful one. When it comes to technology, Murdoch is both a pragmatist and a pioneer - the guiding logic being to find new markets for his content. While Murdoch the gambler bet on unproven satellite and decoder technology to launch satellite TV, Murdoch the pragmatist sat out the dot.com boom. Both proved to be excellent business decisions.

But News Corp doesn't need a phone service and it needs a good web search engine even less. And neither Blinkx nor Technorati are anyone's idea of a good web search engine.

Without the generous capital they've received from Silicon Valley VCs, awash with cash but with little idea of where to spend it, this pair of crocks would be on skid row by now.

How so? Well, both Blinkx and Technorati are trying to meet real needs in areas where, right now, there isn't a strong leader in either category.

The fragmented, atomized discourse produced by the weblog format desperately needs a better user interface, as following threads across these "billion nation states of ones" is a desperate business. Right now, it's like trying to follow Usenet threads by intercepting the traffic of a mixmaster anonymous remailer. We suggested there was room for improvement as long as two years ago, when we mulled the potential of a dedicated Google 'blog tab'. Technorati has been plugging away at this problem for two years now.

Blinks claims video and audio search as its speciality, a plausible pitch. While the internet and its darknets may have the potential to be a global jukebox, there's nothing like iTunes with which to access it yet. For business markets, too Autonomy's neglect of Virage suggests an opportunity exists for real-time archive retrieval in commercial newsrooms.

However even in their infancy, both Blinkx and Technorati have struggled to cope with the basics of the task at hand. Technorati no longer performs minute-long searches which produce no results at all, a hallmark of its first two years - but it's had its clock cleaned by Bloglines (purchased by Barry Diller's empire earlier this year) and other search sites which find many weblogs Technorati can't see, or is confused by. While Technorati has struggled to scale, it's focussed on gimmicks such as 'tags' - this year's gift to spammers. The grown-ups, Google and Yahoo!, will soon collar this market and Yahoo! has already acknowledged that it's working on a weblog search engine with, we hope, new user interface ideas.

A similar cruftiness dogs Blinkx, which like Technorati, owed its early favorable write ups to nepotism, back-scratching and groupthink.

Blinkx prematurely dropped a desktop search gadget onto the web last summer, one of the buggiest pieces of software ever to hit a consumer PC. It doesn't like to mention it now, but this irate email to a national newspaper was typical of the feedback we received, too.

"I downloaded Blinkx to explore its capabilities but had to uninstall it after a couple of days as it proved to be such a thug," wrote one user, Don Lee.

"It kept trying to take over even when not online, and when online it made dozens of proposals that it should be activated (or dialled out?). I didn't discover its capabilities as I was constantly fighting it. Although uninstalled, I sit trembling, awaiting the red logo popping up again."

The video search isn't much better, as the screengrab we took today illustrates.

Blinkx at work

Er, no

While Yahoo! and Google! are popularly thought of as search engines their recent growth has been entirely due to their success as ad brokers - a growing market which threatens to chip away at newspapers' classified sections. So major print publishers are looking at ad brokers which don't leave them at the mercy of the leading two or Microsoft. Barry Diller's InterActive Corp, which is adding an ad service to Ask Jeeves, and owns Bloglines, match.com, TicketMaster and Expedia, appears to have realized this too.

If the VC investors behind Blinkx and Technorati are shrewd, it may be wise to cash in when opportunity comes knocking. There's little market for software that doesn't scale. ®

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