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Accoona: Should Google Worry?

By Amey Stone To what lengths will a new Web site go in 2004 to attract 1999-ish buzz? How about bringing in the President from the dot-com era? None other than Bill Clinton gave a speech at the lavish Dec. 6 launch party of Accoona, a search site that hopes to unseat category-killer Google (GOOG) by using artificial intelligence.

As far as big names go, Accoona had more than Clinton to bring out that night. Its nonexecutive chairman and part-owner is Eckhard Pfeiffer, former CEO of Compaq Computer, now part of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). "We believe it will revolutionize how people find information on the Web," he said of Accoona. Another investor and sponsor is world chess champion Garry Kasparov.

BOTTOMS UP WITH BILL. But all eyes were on Clinton, who looked very thin and gray but healthy as a peach, when he took the podium to give a 15-minute talk about the Internet's potential to bring people of the world together and disrupt the spread of terrorism. "I hope you all get rich, but remember you are doing something good for humanity as well," he told Accoona executives.

The festivities took place at New York's famed Tavern on the Green, where a throng of journalists were treated to open bar, passed hors d'oeuvres, and a buffet replete with oysters on the half shell, leg of lamb, seared tuna, and other gourmet treats. What was the affair's budget? Accoona Executive Director Jonathan McCann wouldn't say. "It depends on how much you all drink," he joked with reporters.

McCann says Accoona has raised $15 million from investors and expects to start making money right away, mainly by providing sponsored links through Yahoo!'s (YHOO) Overture division.

CHINESE CONNECTION. Despite Clinton's appearance (the former President agreed to speak in exchange for an undisclosed contribution to his charitable foundation) and the swank party, it will be a steep climb for the fledgling search engine. Accoona is named for the Swahili phrase "accoona matata" (or Hakuna Matata, as Lion King movie creator Disney (DIS) correctly spells it), which means "no worries."

But worries are already mounting. Early reviews of the site by search-engine buffs have found it lacking. Although most reporters didn't stick around after Clinton's speech to try out the new search engine, I did -- and what I found was that its results didn't quite measure up against Google on some searches that I had done that very same day. Accoona representatives promise that the search engine will "learn" as it goes on and become far more robust.

Accoona does have a strong buzz working in its favor, and that could help to keep it afloat until the technology is in gear. Accoona is partly owned by the government-sanctioned China Daily Information Services, the largest English-language site in China. In its press materials, Accoona states it expects more than 10 million daily unique visitors from China.

DUBIOUS INTELLIGENCE. In what could prove a very useful tool for business users -- if it works as promised -- Accoona also boasts a global database of 32 million companies (including 5 million in China). Click on an infinity symbol next to a company name and an info-box pops up with its address, contact information, sales, and number of employees. There's only one problem: My attempts turned up some bizarre answers, like the information that McGraw-Hill (MHP), owner of BusinessWeek, has between one and four employees. McGraw-Hill actually has more than 16,000 employees.

Even with a Clinton appearance, Accoona has a long way to go before it can compete with Google. Its artificial intelligence had better prove to be a quick learner. Or like many of the dot-coms that came and went, the outfit's launch party may turn out to be its high point as a business. Stone is a senior writer for BusinessWeek Online in New York

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