Going after Google

The Arab world has finally got its own search engine in Araby.com from the internet pioneers Maktoob Group. CEO Samih Toukan reveals the Jordan-based firm has big plans in store — and Google in its sights

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By  Published  December 16, 2006

It has been a long time coming but finally the Arab world has its own search engine. Araby.com the first Arabic search engine launched worldwide in September this year by the Maktoob Group has hopefully made history the days when those searching in Arabic in the global search engines are left frustrated by incompatible search results.

“Araby.com is a search engine born in the Arab world that understands the Arabic language far better than a search engine that is a prototype of a foreign language search engine,” proudly explains Samih Toukan, CEO of Maktoob Group.

“We are confident that this capability alone will make Araby.com the search engine of choice among the Arabic-speaking people.”

The multi-million dollar project conceived and created by Maktoob has certainly had a promising start. As Toukan explains excitedly: “Despite Araby.com’s recent launch, Araby.com has witnessed a phenomenal jump in its users to reach 300,000 unique users and 600,000 visits to the site and the website has successfully crawled through millions of Arabic documents on the internet.”

When given a search command, Araby crawls the entire internet through very advanced algorithms and relevancy criteria to display the most relevant search result, and in this sense is much more advanced than a directory.

“A directory is a limited form of a search engine in that it can only search through a limited database of sites. So the concept is completely different as a search engine like Araby can crawl and search through tens of millions of Arabic documents on the internet and index each result as it comes up,” Toukan says.

Araby’s network combines hundreds of servers and the latest in search technology software to allow the user to obtain access to the entire Arabic internet in a split second.

However, perhaps its most impressive feature is that it allows Arabic language users’ searches to take into account the complex nature of the Arabic language.

In this sense, Araby.com has advantages over global competitors when it comes to searching in Arabic and provides far more accurate results.

Try to search for any word in Google, and put a simple Harakat or a Hamza on the Alef, or other variation, and notice the drastic difference in results. Unlike global search engines that search for an exact word match, Araby.com is capable of detecting different grammatical forms of Arabic words.

The search engine recognises stop words, prefixes, spelling mistakes, variations on the spelling of the words as well as suggesting other forms of the word. Furthermore, the engine recognises offensive words and filters them from the search results.

Arabic pioneers


Being first is nothing new to the Maktoob Group, an Arab internet services company based in Amman, Jordan, which was the first to provide an Arabic/English e-mail service. Founded in 2000 by Samih Toukan and Hussam Khoury, the Maktoob Group introduced Maktoob.com — a free e-mail service with Arabic support for e-mails when no other service had such support. Maktoob.com enabled users who did not have Arabic keyboards or browsers that support Arabic to send and receive e-mails by using a virtual keyboard that was done in Java, and using Java applets that had better Arabic support.

The initial flourish of Maktoob.com and its large user base led the company to create many new sites and services not found previously in Arabic format.

In addition to the Arab world’s leading portal, Maktoob.com, today the Maktoob Group network includes cashu.com — the electronic payment solution; Souq. com – the Arabic equivalent of eBay which is an online auction and trading site; Bentelhalal.com — the largest Arabic matrimonial site; Sport4ever.com — a popular Arabic sports site; and AdabWaFan.com — the online store for Arabic books and music.

However, it is arguably Araby.com that is the most revolutionary site and, as Toukan observes, an Arabic search engine is long overdue.

“A lot of people felt there was a need for an Arabic search engine. I mean everywhere in the world, every language has a search engine. Yes there was Arabic content on the net but it was fragmented so a search engine was needed to make this all come into one place. So the concept of Araby is not new but the implementation is new. There have been several attempts at implementation in this field but they failed for different reasons, mostly because of the technology itself and secondly, the financing. But we believed we were in the right position in terms of financing and finding the right technology to build a proper Arabic search engine and we did it in record timing. We set Araby.com up in six months.”

And although Araby doesn’t currently have a competitor in the local market, Toukan is right when he says the concept is not new.

The Sawafi (Arabic for ‘sandstorm’) project set up as a joint venture between leading European search technology provider Seekport and Saudi Arabia-based MITSCO Group announced earlier this year that it was going to be the first internet search engine designed to offer full Arabic-language search capabilities.

“They were the reason why our plans became faster. But they made a great PR mistake by announcing back in April that they are launching the first Arabic search engine by the end of the year.

“Our plan was also the end of the year but we put together a stronger team and set a tougher deadline and launched in September because we wanted to be the first. I don’t know much about them but I recently heard that they are changing their name and there are delays in the launch. However, according to what they say, they will be our competitor,” says Toukan, his choice of words suggesting he does not feel threatened.


Google-eyed foe


But while Araby.com reigns supreme in the regional market, surely there is competition further afield, especially since Google have introduced the ability to translate from Arabic to English and vice versa.

“Our competition today is Google. I’m sure there are other sites, especially Arabic, that will be coming up but for us today, we are taking Google as our main competitor. Okay, it’s an international player so it’s not directly in competition but Google has an Arabic interface and our technology has to be as good so people can accept it,” Toukan admits.

“But in terms of an Arabic search engine, I think it’s better than Google and that’s what really differentiates us. If done properly, the local search engine has always done better than Google and that’s the case in both Russia and China.”

Aside from Araby’s much more comprehensive understanding of the Arabic language, the search engine has a host of features to make it more user-friendly. Araby.com has created specific search areas known as verticals. “We have a vertical called ‘Islam search’ which searches only in Islamic sites and Islamic-related topics and pages which is something very localised to the market that Google doesn’t offer,” says Toukan proudly.

The first of its kind, the Islam search focuses on topics of special interest such as the Holy Quran, Islamic forums and the roles of family and women in Islam, among others and will allow the user to access the whole library of Islamic content on the net.

Other verticals include news, Arabic blogs, Arabic discussion forums and images. The news search was compiled from hundreds of trusted sources chosen by the search engine’s editors themselves and Araby’s specialised search in the other verticals will allow the user to search and follow millions of discussion and blog posts.

All the verticals have been designed to help the user limit their search to certain sites on the internet in order to achieve more accurate results.

As Toukan says: “These verticals and category-specific search areas are based on our understanding of the Arabic internet and were designed according to user feedback. We know the market better than any global competitor; hence we can come up with areas that are localised and useful to our users.”


Taking on TV


The other feature that differentiates Araby is their creation of a ‘drill-down’ technology, which sifts out the results from all the different search areas. In this way, you can see that there are x number of search results on the internet, x number of results in an Arabic newspaper and x number on a blog.

“It drills down the information for the user to a much better level and refines the search into local drill downs. So we’ve identified the local Arabic newspapers as well as people who have news searches in the region. And similarly it will drill down to the source of the blog,” Toukan says.

“Ultimately, the most important thing is we want to make the search as easy as possible. The internet is growing so big and there’s so much information on it now. The Arabic is a smaller web than the English but it will grow and it’s growing day by day. So, the most important thing is to create technology that will provide the user with what he is looking for, I don’t want to say the exact match but the closest match possible to what he is looking for. And I think the drill-down technology helps a lot in this sense and it also adds value.

“There are other technologies we’ll be introducing which will also help match the search. For example, people are talking about concept searches now. If your search is intelligent, it will understand what you’re trying to search for and not necessarily get you the exact word — it will get you the concept of the search. So we will be experimenting with a lot of these linguistic functionalities to make it easier for the user. What we’ve done so far is only 40 or 50% of what we’d like to do.”

Araby’s success to date is even more impressive considering it has not yet officially launched.

“We are still in the beta version in Arabic but we are planning to announce in January that it’s not the beta version anymore,” Toukan reveals.

“Beta means we are changing things, getting the feedback of the people and improving the technology.

“The most important thing for us now is the relevancy of the search results — to get it as close as possible to what people are searching for. So far we’ve indexed around 30 million Arabic pages. We expect the Arabic Web to be around 70-80 million pages so we’re still halfway there and every day we are growing by half a million or a million documents.”

That Maktoob’s websites are growing as an online community in the Arab world is indisputable.

In addition to its existing network of sites, Maktoob is also looking to acquire new sites.

However, there has also been hearsay that Maktoob is planning to set up a TV station next year.

“Well it’s a rumour!” replies Toukan coyly, “What I will say is that we have a certain initiative in the TV area — not necessarily in the traditional TV set up. Everyone — Google, YouTube, Yahoo — everyone is talking about video online, especially because of the increasing penetration of broadband. Although it’s still small in this region, everyone in the US and the west generally is talking about broadband and convergence between TV and the internet.

“We want be ready for that — we know this is the direction everyone will be taking. It might be a little early for this region but we think that whole cities will be wired with just broadband in a few years time.

“So video/internet/TV is a very strategic area for us and we are looking to make alliances with TV stations.”

Despite having a full plate, Maktoob’s appetite for success has clearly not yet been satisfied.

“ The concept of Araby is not new but the implementation is new. There have been several attempts at implementation in this field but they failed for different reasons.”
“[...] In terms of an Arabic search engine, I think it’s better than Google and that’s what really differentiates us. If done properly, the local search engine has always done better than Google.”

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