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Google's search engine is a widely used tool for locating information or items on the Internet. On any given search, in mere seconds it offers up a vast set of relevant links for the user to sift through. A new environment termed "Virtual Worlds" has created a similar challenge—finding a vast range of items in a timely manner.

This article opens with a brief history of Internet search engines and then profiles a firm called SLQuery, which has created a similar tool in a prominent virtual world called Second Life (from Linden Labs). An interview with SLQuery's proprietor uncovers both the challenges and benefits of virtual world search engines.

The history of search engines originated with ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the US Department of Defense created the predecessor of the Internet. By the early 1990s, this concept propagated into several hundred sites that were primarily authored by universities.

The first commercial Search Engine was called Archie, and its founder was Alan Emtage (McGill University). The significance of his tool was that it was a "script-based data gatherer," which essentially matched file names to a query.

During the same period, Berners-Lee used hypertext in conjunction with the Internet and created the World Wide Web. He went on to design and build the first Web browser/editor (WWW) and a server termed "http." By 1994, Berners-Lee and MIT created the World Wide Web consortium.

So how does a search engine work? A spider (program) searches links on the World Wide Web to seek out Web pages. The spider "crawls" various sites, and this information updates its originating index to build a list. When using a major search engine, you are really searching that index and not the Web. The key to a search engine lies in the relevancy software that ranks queries based on content and citation information.

The most prominent search sites are those of Yahoo and Google. Google began as an academic search engine that used three spiders at once to create a large number of connections to sites (simultaneously). The key benefit in Google's architecture was speed and its ability to index significant words on Web pages. The cataloging of such information for relevancy reduced the overall search time.

What happens if you want to perform a search in Second Life (SL), where humans become "Avatars" (3-D persona) and interact in a fictitious, virtual world?

Linden Labs, the company behind Second Life, has its own "in-world" search tool to research items based on terms or words. New companies within SL have developed vending machines and other devices to locate items. (To learn more on Second Life, search Google for "Virtual Worlds: The Next Realm in Advertising?") To understand how a search engine is developed in a virtual world, SLQuery's Damek Tretiak (his SL avatar name), walked us through his search engine platform specifically designed for Second Life.

Q. Can you give me a little background on yourself?

A. I've been in the software development industry for about 10 years now. My software development has been mainly corporate-related work. The company I'm with now runs the port of Wilmington, DE for VWOA/Audi and I write the real-time software that runs their inventory management system. I also manage the networks for all of our offices- Tampa, Wilmington, and some other branch offices throughout the USA and Europe.

Q. What are a few interesting things you have done in your professional career?

A. I think one of the most interesting was the real-time management system I built for the port. It tracks all vehicles and any maintenance they undergo while under our control using a series of wireless RF scanners and management consoles. This also required billing and invoicing modules. On the internet side, I've built several e-commerce sites. The most recent being Pureinventions.com, which sells green tea and other herbal extracts.

Q. When did you first become interested in search engine design?

A. I've been in the corporate side of things for so long, I haven't had a chance to pursue some of these other passions. I've been interested in search engines for years now. Other than the search engines I've built for our corporate intranets, and of course the inventory data warehouses, I have not had a chance to look into them deeper until recently. SL came around at the right time —I had some extra time to start exploring this new world. I was fascinated by virtual worlds years ago.

Q. Where did your inspiration come from to build an entirely new search platform for SL?

A. When I first came into SL, I noticed a need for this kind of service right away. I originally created SLQ for my own needs. I wanted (and needed) a way to catalog all the interesting places and objects I was finding. What makes SL so interesting is that there are so many creative works to be explored in Second Life.

Q. What need were you filling that other search engines in SL didn't?

A. After I created my initial site, I realized that it would be useful not only to myself but to others. The default (SL's) client searches only searched-for parcels and for some reason didn't use all of the keywords found in the descriptions. I wanted a search for products and one that could give residents a way to better represent what they have to offer. So I added images, comments, and a way to view the UUID (Universally Unique Identifier) of an image in-world.

The HUD (heads-up-display) was the best way to represent that because it gave the ability to not only search SL but also the Web, stores like Amazon, and reference sites such as spelling and dictionary sites. The avatar "wears" this HUD in SL and can activate a search as needed without seeking a kiosk or special search vendor. The more you can do in-world without leaving SL, the better.

Q. What types of services do you sell in SL?

A. The main focus of the SL services is search and marketing. SLQ offers the following: search against SL, the Web, Amazon.com, and other reference sites, in addition to a news tracker, individual mini blogs, and the newer infoChat system.

Q. How will you monetize your site? In much the same manner as Google?

A. The revenue stream will come from RL advertising on this site and others that are planned, as well as an in-world advertising and marketing service for merchants and service providers. The infoStations, for instance, provide ad space and branding opportunities for in-world businesses.

Q. Take us through the process of designing a search tool in SL. What software do you use?

A. Designing in SL is a bit of a challenge. LSL (Linden Scripting Language) as a state-driven language is great, but the limitations on memory and the built-in delays require a lot of creative programming. I believe any LSL programmer can attest to that.

Q. What was your thought process behind the HUD design?

A. The HUD was particularly interesting because I wanted to present not only text but also images/other utilities while keeping it all in a compact format. I've succeeded with this goal. Many have commented on how well it works and how it stays out of the way. The design goals were based on trying to make it as intuitive and usable as possible. So I stuck to simple buttons, clearly defined icons, and tried to give as many visual clues as possible. The system itself is a combination of LSL scripting on the inside and a "Ruby On Rails" application on the server side.

Q. What tools would you like to see in the future?

A. I'd like to see better land search tools. It's one of the most common requests I get, because land is at such a hot commodity right now, everyone wants to know what's available and at what price. So a tool that could augment what the SL client shows would be very valuable. SLQ should be able to meet that need in the coming months as we are currently building a full grid scanner.

Another tool I'd like to see that we're presently working on is improved RL 2 SL (real life to Second Life) chat systems. Our infoChat on the infoStation is the first example of where we believe we can take it. The next phase of that offering will be private chat features via the HUD. As far as search is concerned, the sky is the limit. There is so much that can be cataloged and indexed individually. Not only products, but job offerings, services, events, etc.

Q. What are your plans for the future?

A. We plan to continue enhancing the search features of SLQ and then to augment that with more branding and distribution opportunities for other in-world businesses. I see SLQ becoming not only a premier search engine but also a platform for other businesses to use in their own efforts. Distribution, chat, information, and communication can all be expanded in numerous ways. I'd like to see us become a catalyst for other groups as well. The SLQuery was intentional—it was meant to expand and become an engine for others to use.

We've begun to see some of this happen. For instance, SLQ has partnered with apez.biz to offer all of their products and their customer's products via the SLQ search engine. The S3storeage.net group has also contacted us about collaborating with them. And then there is also the Second Life Library, which is an excellent example of one group using SLQ as their database platform. SL Business uses SLQ as their distribution platform. So, I think you can see the many paths that are being taken!

Q. Any final thoughts?

A. We're looking to use the Amazon S3 and EC2 services as a way to efficiently manage growth in the future because it allows us to add new servers on demand when the load requires it. The biggest impression that I'd like to leave with is that idea of SLQ as a platform. I've seen other attempts at SL search engines, but I don't believe they had the vision to become more than just a 2-D search. In addition, it's important to note that we are looking at ways to envelop the virtual world into our searches. I'd like to see SLQ make better use of the 3-D environment for searches and search results.

* * *

Search engines are useful tools when seeking information or finding tangibles on the Internet. This SLQuery application transcends the real world and has found applicability in a virtual world setting. The next iteration of search engines may include the ability to connect with others (communities) that seek the same forum. SLQuery might be bridging that gap through its unique platform.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bill Nissim consults with organizations on strategic branding imperatives. He has helped firms make the transition to Second Life and has fostered brand creation in virtual worlds. Bill has held senior management positions at Fortune 100 firms. Reach him via www.ideawerksstudios.com.