Internet Buzz with Richard Wiggins | 11 | WebReference

Internet Buzz with Richard Wiggins | 11

Volume 1, Number 28 July 24, 1998 Internet Buzz main page

East Lansing, Michigan
Alexa and Netscape Smart Browsing: An Interview with Brewster Kahle

By Richard Wiggins


ince the days of the earliest Web browsers – you know, ancient history, as in when Mosaic was released in early 1993 – the browser has in truth been a fairly stupid critter. You feed the browser a URL, it goes to the server and fetches the document, and it puts the document up on the screen. Oh, sure, browsers have gotten smarter – they learned about frames and Javascript and Java and ActiveX – but fundamentally the browser never exhibited any learning behavior or intelligence about the Web you're surfing.

One year ago, Internet applications pioneer Brewster Kahle launched a new company and a new service, both named Alexa. The idea behind Alexa was simple: let's turn Web surfing from an individual experience to a group experience. To participate in Alexa's group surfing experience, all you have to do is download an application that sits alongside your browser, watching the sites you visit, and informing a central database of your surfing habits. The Alexa toolbar sits on your desktop and offers constantly-updated information about the sites you visit: who owns the site, how popular the site is, how others rate the site, and a list of "Related Sites."

Netscape 4.5 introduces a concept of "smart browsing," and Alexa is a key component of this new way of thinking about the browser. The "Related Sites" functionality of Alexa is built into Netscape 4.5 as a drop-down list right on the browser toolbar. Thus Netscape users will automatically have access to some Alexa functionality without need for a separate download.

In a wide-ranging interview, Brewster Kahle explains Alexa and the Netscape tie-in while offering more cosmic observations about the state of finding things on the Web.

Brewster, you call Alexa a "surf engine." What does that mean?

Q. Jaquith invented the term "surf engine." A surf engine gives you information based on where you are. In retrospect, this makes all the sense in the world – you want to know something about the context of where you are on the Web, and you want some hints as to where you might want to go next. Think of it as a heads up display for the Web, always active, always providing information about each site you visit. Because you have a high-speed computer on your desk, you can look at one site, and Alexa unobtrusively gets info about that site in the background while you surf.

Everyone now uses the neologism "portal" to describe Yahoo, AltaVista, Infoseek, Excite, and company. How does a surf engine compare to a portal site?

Portals do great business if people never leave them. Their whole business model depends on you staying on the portal site, because they need for you to see their banner ads. So the portals are trying to build more and more content into their site –for instance, If you type 'Rangers' on Excite, you get that team's most recent score.

We are not trying to keep people on our site – we're taking the baton of where the search engine started – helping you navigate the Net, rather than cramming functionality and content into the portal.

If portal sites can manage to deliver the information I need right at the portal site, what's wrong with that?

We count up to 20 million unique "content areas" on the Web today. (When we say "content area" it's similar to how some people use "Web site" but that term is too vague.)

People are interested in all kinds of information: corporate information, community information, reference information, personal information.

Who will catalog the Web site for every suburb on the planet? We'll find very specific information: PGA, soccer team, local elections all scale together. Alexa also picks up Web pages of "guru sites" – folks who link to all their favorite sites. We use link analysis of the Web and the usage trail to help map popularity.

Portal sites are going to try to identify a small number of sites that answer most people's common questions. If we rely on portal sites for finding all the content folks might find useful, the Web becomes 10 channels of nothing.

If we just dumb down to 10 channels, such as portals and AOL are doing, we will have missed the opportunity of the century

How important is Netscape 4.5 as a new distribution channels for Alexa?

Netscape 4.5 is the first widespread deployment of a surf engine. We're very happy that 16M users will be out there using Alexa functionality.

It's also the first of a new breed – a Web service without a Web site.

How does the Netscape 4.5 deal compare with your Internet Explorer plugin?

With IE, we don't have a distribution arrangement; you have to come to the Alexa site to get the plugin. With Netscape, you get the Related Sites functionality as you download the Navigator itself. The IE plugin is pretty cool though: you get the whole Alexa toolbar within the plugin. It's all done in HTML, which is very flexible for the future.

Why didn't you build full Alexa functionality into Netscape as you did with your IE plugin?

We need Netscape 5.0 for that kind of integration – Netscape is more mature, plus we have source code.


Comments are welcome

Produced by Rich Wiggins and
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Created: July 24, 1998
Revised: July 24, 1998