Call off the search

Daniel Stanton speaks to the man behind the Arabic search engine that could revolutionise internet use in the Middle East when launched later this year.

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By  Daniel Stanton Published  September 4, 2006

|~|searchhav200.jpg|~|Havermann: No one has catered for Arabic-speaking internet users in the past.|~|The English language has Google, Chinese has Baidu, but until now Arabic has not had its own dedicated internet search engine. But that is set to change with the introduction of an as-yet-unnamed portal by European search specialists Seekport, in partnership with Saudi Arabia's Mitsco.

Seekport already operates search engines in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian, but has now decided that there is a need for an Arabic search engine.

When the project was first announced, it was named Sawafi, Arabic for sandstorm, but it will have a new name when it is launched. Hermann Havermann, CEO of Seekport Arabia, says: "We are still searching for an excellent brand. Sawafi is good but we found out that it is more of a Saudi term and in some Arab countries they don't know what it means."

Compared to the rest of the world, most Arab countries do not have a high internet penetration. This, according to Havermann, leaves plenty of potential for growth in the coming years. "If you look at the Arabic speakers worldwide, they represent 5% of the world population, but only 2% of the internet users," he says. "And then it even gets worse. The Arab web pages only represent 0.2% of overall web pages. Right now we estimate there are 100 million Arabic web pages but that is going to double every year. It's a huge market."

Part of that potential for growth comes from the fact that many native Arabic speakers are not using the internet because they are not confident using English. "There are approximately 65% of Arab users who do not feel comfortable with the English language, and only 35% that speak English," says Havermann. "There is a huge increase in internet use in the Arab market." Madar Research projects growth of around 40% to 45% for internet penetration in Arab countries in the next couple of years, which could boost the need for an Arabic search engine.

Google and the other major internet search engines offer their services in other languages including Arabic, but Havermann says that the Arabic option is something of an afterthought. "Google on the international side is very good, but when you try to search in Arabic, the search is very poor and in all international search engines as well," he says.

Although there are Arabic search engines available, they only offer a directory search of limited content, rather than searching the whole of the internet for Arabic documents. "We did research on the local Arabic search engines available. When you go to the web, there's a list of approximately 60 to 70 search engines, but these are not real search engines so there is no competition."

Seekport's Arabic portal will use the same main engine it uses for searches in other languages. "The search engine to a certain extent is automated," says Havermann. "The crawling cycle depends on the update frequency on the end user side. Crawling cycles for RSS news feeds, for example, you will have down to five or 15 minutes." On the other hand, personal web pages are likely to be crawled less often, perhaps only once a month. ||**|||~|searchaljin200.jpg|~|Aljinni claims to be the only truly dedicated Arabic search engine.|~|The search engine will block unsuitable content using filters and automated processes. "We want to provide a very high quality for the end user," says Havermann.

"We are certainly suppressing commercial spam, we do not allow adult material and ethically unwanted and bad content. We have a quality team that takes care of that to control the quality of the index. That's what we are doing in Europe and that's what we are doing here as well."

Although much of the day-to-day running of a search engine is automated, it still needs human input. "The daily process which goes on is gathering data and checking data, manually as well as via the process of a search engine," says Havermann.

"You need your team of operators and your team of administrators, and you have to provide excellent facilities so that the search engine is available on a 100% basis, not 99.99%, with no break whatsoever."

Seekport takes care of its own datacentres, although, in common with the other major search engines, their locations and specifications are a closely guarded secret. "Some companies don't want to release what operating systems they are using," Havermann explains. "We are running on Linux as we feel that the Microsoft operating system is not reliable and not powerful enough for these kinds of applications. It is also not secure enough," he adds.

Functions available within the portal are expected to include localised news and entertainment. Seekport is also planning to produce versions of the search engine for the desktop and portable devices, which Havermann suggests could be linked to in-car navigation devices giving users directions when they search for the addresses of local businesses.

"We will definitely provide something here in the Arabic countries, to have an integrated search from desktop to enterprise to internet," he says. He points out that most Middle East companies have to complete some documents in the language and therefore have a need for an Arabic desktop search.

There are signs that the major search engines are starting to place more importance on the Middle East. In May, Google introduced a Gmail interface in Arabic, and now enables users to view and browse around 500 Arabic news resources through Google News.

A spokesperson for Google said that the company would be setting up a regional office in Cairo, probably in November, to focus on its Arabised offerings, and would also have representation in Morocco and the Gulf. "Google is currently focusing a lot on the localisation of products in many languages in order to further fulfil its mission to organise the world's information and make it universally useful and accessible," she added.

Egyptian firm Lojine will also bring out its own Arabic search engine in the coming weeks. Aljinni, which means 'the genie', has several features lacking in Google's Arabic version, including Arabic spell check and correction when a user mistypes a search term. It includes a keyboard feature for users, especially expat Arabs, who do not have access to an Arabic keyboard, and will offer video, audio and image search. It is also able to search English content.

Time will tell whether Seekport's early entry into the Arabic market will put it in a stronger position than its global rivals, and if this is the breakthrough that could grow internet use in the Arab world.||**||

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