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Add Search Capability to Your Site in Five Minutes -- at No Cost! Interview With Jim Douglas of FreeFind

by Don Hamilton

Want a search engine for your Web site but your Webmaster just quoted you $150 an hour to install and troubleshoot it? Once again, the Web entrepreneurs have come through and are now providing this service for free. Meet Jim Douglas and his brother, Alan, of FreeFind. These guys are small but the service they provide for a site operator is immeasurable, and possibly open-ended. I tried installing their system on the WWWiz site. It took me five minutes to register, five minutes to install the system as HTML code, and ZAP! A 750-page Web site is fully searchable and ready to go. If you want to spend a little more time, you can customize the search page to your site's individual look and feel, but the quick version looks great and works well.

FreeFind lets you add weight to any key word on any one of their pages. For example, a software maker with a download page might want that page to always appear at the top of the "download" query. The software maker would just add weight to the "download" key word on the download page, and it would show up at the top of the download query list. Even the big guys recognize the value of weighting certain key words. Just the other day, I went to InfoSeek to search for WWWiz, and the first item on the results list was the WWWiz interview with Steve Kirsch, chairman of InfoSeek. That's no accident.

FreeFind will also send you your new Control Center password, along with instructions on how to customize your search and search results pages with your site logo, background and text, as well as information on how to request re-spidering of your site.

This product is truly about cost aversion. If your site has any real information on it, you need an effective method of searching that's quick and easy. FreeFind brings you this capability. No need for expensive search software. No server configuration, CGIs or software to install. Pages are ranked without bias, and page rankings can be changed by you. Visitors to your site get to the information they need -- fast. As a result, your site will become more productive. FreeFind's servers handle the load, their staff does it all, and it's free.

If all this isn't enough to make you leap to FreeFind's site, consider this: with FreeFind, you can set up a search engine on your site that can search another site. If you know of a site with information that you use frequently, but which has no search engine, you can place a search engine on your personal site that searches that outside information. This is a very powerful tool and it only takes five minutes to set up.

If you want a ride on the next Hotmail-, Amazon- or eBay-style train to riches, take a look at FreeFind. The Douglas brothers have a winner.

WWWiz: I understand you have a small consulting business. Is that how you're supporting your business initially?

Jim: That's pretty much our business model. We support ourselves doing consulting and we financed ourselves by doing development for various companies. Our server operates out of an office in downtown Santa Cruz.

WWWiz: What's the advantage of using your system over a free Java script that I can download from the Web, which allows me to build a search engine for my site?

Jim: I'm not sure the Java scripts are the best solution if you want to install something on your own server. There's a wide variety of solutions you can install on your own server -- mostly CGIs and Perl scripts. There are quite a few advantages in using Freefind. It's a lot easier to use Freefind than to use one of these scripts. To use Freefind you just put in your email address, your URL, hit a button and we email you the HTML to paste into your page, and that's pretty much it. At the control center you can schedule how often you want your site re-indexed. It's a zero-administration solution. We do everything. If the software needs updating, we update it on our servers. A lot of people don't even have access to their server and even if they do they might not have the expertise required to configure and install a search engine. A lot of the search engines out there are pretty wimpy, so you first thing you have to do is go through and identify which one to use, then you have to download a TAR file and modify it for your operating system. You'll probably have to compile it with a C compiler. Even an expert could take a few days to get it set up.

WWWiz: What kind of cost avoidance are you achieving with this solution?

Jim: Some solutions cost as much as one dollar for each page that will be indexed. It can be a substantial expense.

WWWiz: Besides, then you'd have to pay some kind of software engineer to put it together on your server.

Jim: Unless you have some kind of expertise yourself or you want to spend the time to learn how to do that. If not, you will have to hire someone who knows how.

WWWiz: What kind of background do you and your brother have for building this business model?

Jim: We have an extensive background in software development. We have also run a few start-ups before. Our first product was released just after the Macintosh came out. We had a shrink-wrapped product that was shipped to tens of thousands of users. It was the old style of doing things. We built a network of dealerships. These days you see more and more online tools where people don't have to go thorough all that. It makes it much easier for the developer.

I would say the answer to your question is that we are both highly technical. We've been involved in quite a few firsts. We shipped the first-ever disk cache for microprocessors. We developed the first two-way tools for C++ to edit your code either graphically or with source code, and we ended up selling that to Borland in the early '90s. It was called Resource Workshop. We've been through this before and we like to take advantage of all the technology.

WWWiz: Did you learn this business in school or on your own?

Jim: [laughs] I would have to say it's something we learned on our own. I got into computers when I was in high school. I started out by cracking the security system on the University of Texas computer. These days they would send the FBI around. About once a year locally some kid is caught and his computers are hauled off while the parents are standing there wringing their hands, but back then they didn't know what to do, so the university offered us jobs. My first job was patching security loopholes on their system when I was 15 years old.

WWWiz: How many pages are you serving per day for your advertisers?

Jim: Well, I could divide that out, but we're serving about one million pages per month. At our current rate, we expect to double within 60 days.

WWWiz: Do you have the equipment and bandwidth to handle that kind of growth?

Jim: Yeah, we sure do! We can handle about eight times the amount of traffic we're currently experiencing. I would be really comfortable with five times our current load. The software is designed to expand well beyond that; we just need to add more boxes.

WWWiz: One of my concerns is how fast your site operates, because one of my nightmares is that our customers are stuck on a slow site that lives in between us and them.

Jim: Ninety-five percent of our searches take less than a second.

WWWiz: One of the things you mention on your site is that you do ranking without bias.

Jim: Every search engine has its own algorithm and some of them are top secret. For example, you won't get the people at Alta Vista to tell you how they rank pages. When you have an Internet search engine or one that searches multiple Web sites people do what is called "spamming the search engine." That is, they try to get their page to come up first. Suppose you have a Web site about sailing, and you have the word "sailing" on it eight million times, and you submit it to Alta Vista and it says, "Wow! Look at all those sailing key words! This must be a real sailing site!" The guys at Alta Vista figured that out the first few days they were online. Now what the search engines do is make some judgments about your page and whether your key words are good key words or just a bunch of key words on a page. If you use something like HotBot, which has the ability to either search the Web or search a local site, that local site search is based on the same search system it uses for the Web. It also may not hit all your pages, and it's not customized to look like your site; it looks like HotBot. A third thing is that it uses biased ranking. For example, the page you have that has the most instances of a key word might not come up first if HotBot decides that word appears too often.

A lot of people spend a lot of time trying to get their site to come up in the first ten. There are volumes and volumes of how to do that on the Net, and of course everyone is speculating because they won't actually release these algorithms.

WWWiz: Do you have salespeople to sell your ads?

Jim: Yes -- it's me. Actually, we're currently negotiating with several advertising networks like Teknosurf and Doubleclick who are ad brokers.

WWWiz: Who's your competition for searching individual sites?

Jim: I don't know that we have competition right now. We had a competitor for a while called Wired-Worker; they showed up around October '98 and by January '99 they were gone.

WWWiz: How long has Freefind been online?

Jim: We put a beta online last September and we got our full-blown software going in January '99.

WWWiz: What kind of server do you use?

Jim: Currently we're using an NT-based system but we're looking at moving it to Linux.

WWWiz: What software are you using?

Jim: We developed a series of Java servlets and we're pretty much exclusively in Java. The way it's designed, there are a number of different servlets that can run on different systems, so as you expand you can add more boxes and distribute these servelets across the system and get more capacity. It will let us scale up to 100 times our current size.

WWWiz: Could you tell us a little about your custom-designed page that matches the site that uses it?

Jim: Yes. The search results page is served from our server, and we can make it look like it's part of your site by customizing the background. What we have is a customization wizard. You go to the Freefind control center, enter your account information, press the customize button, and it comes up with about six pages that you go through. These allow you to pick titles and background color, image or logo, and format the search results if you want them a certain width to match a background image, or if it requires narrow search results. If your results are overlaid on a background with a bar on the left-hand side, for example, you can adjust the results to write in the proper area. We have a preview button on the wizard so you can see what it's going to look like. You get it set up the way you like it, hit finish, and it customizes your results page.

WWWiz: How did you decide to start this business?

Jim: We had been working with and looking at these various capabilities for our own site, and found out what a hassle it is to build in a search function. It just hit us one day that it was something we could do remotely for people, and it would be a business model that really matches the Web. We've done a lot of start-upbefore but this is the most well-received thing we've done. We get emails every day saying, "This is the greatest," and "Hey, I love it."

WWWiz: What is your rate of sign-up?

Jim: We have about 120-150 new sites a day. That rate is accelerating. A lot of people find out about us because they went to a site that has Freefind installed already. It creates sort of a feedback loop that's driving more and more people to our site every day. It's given us somewhat of an exponential component to our expansion.

WWWiz: What kinds of sites have joined?

Jim: The variety is surprising. We have everything from someone with 20 pages to sites with 10,000 pages, and everything from a personal site at Geocities to a major newspaper. We have foreign sites that I can't read because I only speak English, although I can sort of make out the details, but I'm not certain what the content of these sites are. The search engine works with the Latin alphabet. I does not work with Cyrillic or Hebrew, for example.

WWWiz: What kind of company are you?

Jim: We are privately held.

WWWiz: Are you looking for investment partners?

Jim: Yes. We've just started looking around because the expansion potential is significant. While we're expanding fast now, we might be able to expand a lot faster. As you know, these days most Internet companies are concentrating on growth and market share rather than making money. Most are attempting to establish themselves as the site in the market they're in -- we have the same hope.

A few related sites:

Search Engine Watch

Search engine reviews, reports and resources.


See what searches are being conducted on MetaCrawler in real time. Warning to parents: X-rated words are commonly seen here.


Will your customers be able to find you? See how you rank with various search engines.

24/7 Media

Provides Internet advertising and online direct marketing solutions for advertisers and Web publishers.


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