Start Your Engines

Excite and Yahoo, the two leading Web-search sites, race to remake themselves into portals

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Joe Kraus wants to provide your horoscope. And your mutual fund's bottom line. And your E-mail and your headline news. And your groceries, your travel plans, your greeting cards, your sports scores, your local weather, your TV listings, your friends...

Just call it your entire life online. Kraus is the 26-year-old cofounder of Excite the Web's No. 2, "we try harder" search engine, one of those immensely useful sites that search the Internet for pages that contain whatever words or phrases you type in. This week Excite unveils its latest incarnation, centered on what the digerati call "personalization." If you want to stick with Excite's standard service, that's fine. But the more personal data you're willing to feed the site, the more the Net's teeming world of data will come formatted to your individual specifications each time you pay a visit.

It's a canny gambit in what is becoming an increasingly lucrative game. The Web has long since proved that there's money to be made simply by telling people where to go. The veteran search engines--brand names like Yahoo and Excite, Lycos and Infoseek, HotBot and Alta Vista--still dominate the Web's Top 10 traffic lists despite less than stellar performance. The journal Science reports, for example, that the best search engines sample no more than a third of the hundreds of millions of sites in existence. Yet last March, according to the Web research firm RelevantKnowledge, a startling 31 million "unique visitors" accessed Yahoo making it not just the world's most popular Website but also a growing media powerhouse in its own right. Wall Street has rewarded the three-year-old company with a market valuation of $5.2 billion. Excite drew more than 16 million users last month and enjoys a $1 billion market valuation although it has yet to turn a profit. After Yahoo reported stronger-than-expected earnings last week, both stocks jumped more than 16% in one day.

To justify Wall Street's love, the big search engines will have to give their audience ever better reasons to stay tuned. Yahoo and Excite understand this, and almost since their inception have been working to transcend their origins, morphing from simple navigation aids into (warning: buzzword ahead) "portals," mega-Websites that are designed to fulfill a wired citizen's every last online need: browsing, shopping, playing, chatting, whatever. "We began with simple searching," says Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, "and that's still a big hit--our Seinfeld, if you will--but we've also tried to develop a must-see-TV lineup: Yahoo Finance, Yahoo Chat, Yahoo Mail. We think of ourselves as a media network these days."

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