Making search less text-centric

Thanks to Google we navigate the Web with words. A group of upstarts wants to make search more visual.

By Jia Lynn Yang, writer

Browser plug-in Cooliris works lets you see hundreds of pictures at once.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- The online world has gone totally multimedia: Web video and images have proliferated in recent years. Yet the go-to method for finding stuff on the Internet remains text-based. Looking for a site? Type words into a search bar, and the text results offer a hint of the relevant pages. Even if you're looking for images or video, the results are notated with words.

But a few companies are looking for ways to spruce up search by making it more visually driven. Not only do the results look better than what we're accustomed to, they might just save you time as you're searching.

Consider Cooliris, a browser plug-in that takes groups of images and videos and presents them on a slick interactive wall. Instead of clicking through endless pages of results to find the image you want, Cooliris lets you fly through hundreds of pictures at once and then zoom in and out on the ones that interest you.

It works for image searches on Google (GOOG, Fortune 500), AOL, Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500), and others and it's also helpful for sharing photos on sites like Flickr and Facebook.

The plug-in is still in beta, but Cooliris says it's already attracted more than 10 million users with 50,000 downloads a day. Plus, earlier this month, Cooliris received $15.5 million of funding from Kleiner Perkins, DAG Ventures, the Westly Group and T-Mobile's T-Ventures. The company's first round of funding, $3 million two years ago, also came from Kleiner.

Another site that's putting visuals front and center in Web browsing is Searchme. The big difference between Cooliris and Searchme is that the latter is actually developing its own search algorithm. By contrast, Cooliris is layering its interface onto other search tools.

Searchme has the same business model as a standard search engine - it sells ads against key words - but the search results and ads come up as snapshots of the relevant sites.

So if you look up news stories on Oracle's purchase of Sun Microsystems, you'll actually see the articles lined up next to each other so you can read them immediately without having to click through. The idea is this saves you the trouble of having to toggle back and forth between the search results page and the content behind the links.

Over the last few years, Searchme has received funding from Sequoia, DAG Ventures and Lehman Brothers.

But if Google has about 70% of the search market, how does a company like Searchme fit in?

"I like the fact that Google is a monopoly," says Randy Adams, CEO and founder of Searchme. "It means I'm free to turn on a dime and do things that are disruptive to the marketplace."

Google responded by pointing to a few recent tools the company has added to improve searches. For instance, there's a new feature on image searches called "similar images," where you can click on a link below an image search result to find pictures along the same lines. Late last year Google introduced Search Wiki, which lets users re-rank and comment on search results. The company's also experimenting with alternative views for search results - for instance, putting them on a timeline or a map. Said a spokesperson: "We're constantly innovating new ways for users to experience search and search results."

The only question is whether users are ready to change the way they navigate for information online.

"It kind of requires us to decide that the new way not only has advantages but can be grasped quickly enough that the disadvantage inherent in the learning curve doesn't make it too costly to switch," says Susan Aldrich, senior VP at the Patricia Seybold Group, a technology consulting and research firm. "So if I'm going to be really inefficient for two weeks, then, hmm, it's gotta be really wonderful."

The executives at Cooliris think that so long as the amount of visual content online continues to expand (about 850 million new photos are added on Facebook every month), people will need quicker ways to scan the images.

Still, it could take some time to convince enough people to make a switch.

"Our studies say it takes two months to get someone to use this on a regular basis," says Adams, who says it's hard to re-condition people who have spent years and years thinking text is the best way to search.

"But once you get them over and they're able to do this kind of search, we have these zealots. Once we have them, we don't lose them." To top of page

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