Meet Wowd, a peer-to-peer search engine that could challenge Google

The internet is littered with the carcasses of pretenders to Google's throne. From Powerset to Wolfram Alpha, the idea that a new form of search could outdo Google, the most important online innovation yet, has attracted some of the technology world's smartest players.

In that tradition, now comes a new entrant called Wowd, which could actually be the biggest threat so far. The name is a play is on the word "crowd" -- and it's not accidental. Wowd, which describes itself as "Skype for search," officially launched as a beta product open to the public at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco on Oct. 20.

In essence, the company has made a peer-to-peer search engine powered by what other Wowd users are looking at online rather than studying and ranking sites based on an arcane link structure. Taking search and breaking it into millions of tiny pieces all run by individual users who have downloaded the Wowd client completely changes the operation -- and economics -- of a search engine. The more times that someone in the Wowd crowd clicks on a link within a recent time frame, the higher the link's ranking.

To work properly, Wowd will need lots and lots of users to cover the entire spectrum of likely Web topics. But if it plays out as company CEO Mark Drummond expects, the concept could prove to be an incredibly powerful amalgam for personal recommendations and real-time search. Using a peer-to-peer system means the information is extremely fresh and changing in real time.

It also means that search would become infinitely scalable with no need for huge data centers and miles of server racks to store and curate a master index. Rather, a massive cloud of users would serve as the de facto search engine. No storage would be required because "indexing" the internet would ocurr in real time and would be totally fungible.

Real-time search is a popular business these days. Twitter, Google (GOOG), Collecta, OneRiot, Facebook and Topsy are all trying to crack that market, as is Microsoft (MSFT) with its Bing search engine. But Wowd Chief Technology Officer Boris Agapiev, who previously founded search engine Vast, decided on Wowd's new peer-to-peer approach.

Wowd won't have to worry about its electricity bills because users would bear the cost, and they're likely able to handle the extra couple of bucks per year they might incur in utility charges. Google has spent many millions of dollars leasing fiber-optic lines to ensure that it had its own private information superhighway for quickly and easily distributing Google search results to users and key network operations centers around the world.

Wowd has no such requirement because -- like Skype does with its voice, video and instant messaging services -- its traffic rides entirely on top of its users' home and business broadband connections. How much of a benefit could it be that Wowd will rely on users for computing power rather than forking over hundreds of millions to buy servers and lease or build data centers? In 2008, Google spent over $2 billion in property and equipment, the line item that covers much of these costs. So while Google has high operating margins in the low 30 percent range, a search engine like Wowd could sport even higher margins, perhaps upwards of 50 percent, again like Skype.

Beyond the economics, Wowd's timing couldn't be better. Interest in real-time search has skyrocketed as Facebook and Twitter have increased public expectations for data freshness. Plus, this new focus on real-time search has pointed out some of Google's most glaring failings -- namely, how dated many of its results are. (A personal example: Today I searched for sinus remedy sites and found among the top links a very poor site with bad information that had not been updated in three years.) Equally intriguing, Wowd results will literally move, changing position while a user is looking at the screen to reflect trending preferences of other Wowd users as they travel across the Internet.

Still, Wowd's results aren't terribly good at the moment. For instance, searches for best breakfast in San Francisco yielded links to pages about other cities. That's not surprising, since it just launched and will need to achieve a critical mass of users to make the concept work. And Google could quite easily turn on its own version of Wowd, should the concept prove successful.

Whatever the case, it's hard to discount the viral nature of peer-to-peer networks and the economic power of the distributed model -- a model that could finally be a better mousetrap for web surfers searching for information.

Alex Salkever is Senior Writer at AOL Daily Finance covering technology and greentech. Follow him on twitter @alexsalkever, read his articles, or email him at alex@dailyfinance.com.

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