What is Microsoft planning with Fast's 'behavioral' search technology?

In a teleconference held today to discuss its $1.2 billion acquisition bid for Norwegian-based Fast Search & Transfer, Microsoft spelled out how Fast's technology will fill out its existing enterprise search capabilities.

Yet Microsoft appeared to skirt questions from the press and analysts around how the technology might also be used in Web search applications such as online advertising.

During the call, Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's business division, focused on the "common vision for the value of enterprise search" which he said is held by both Microsoft and its targeted acquisition. Drawing from analysts' statistics and press reports, Raikes contended that "very few [companies] have significant enterprise search" today.

Microsoft plans to solve that problem in solutions that combine Fast's search engine with Microsoft's widely deployed SharePoint enterprise portal, according to Raikes.

When asked by one caller how Fast's technology will fit with Microsoft's existing enterprise search capabilities, Raikes answered that Fast's search will allow for much more highly scalable searches -- across billions of documents -- than the millions of documents now covered by SharePoint's built-in search capabilities.

Raikes also differentiated Fast's search technologies from those of the "very low-cost, low-end Microsoft Search Server Express," which he said are aimed at "the appliance segment."

In contrast, said Raikes, most Web search engines are "quite irrelevant" to searches for documents within enterprises, because they lack the "relevance algorithms" in Fast's search technology, and are instead "highly dominated by numbers of hits."

Raikes said, too, that Microsoft has also been talking with Fast about "the relevance of what [Fast is] doing to the Web."

Last year, following a costly major restructuring, Fast announced AdMomentum, a solution designed to let media companies sell and serve ads on their own Web sites, without needing to pay an ad agency or an online middleman. Fast has also "put in place development capabilities that allow for domain-specific searches," according to Raikes.

Fast CEO John Lervik told analysts on the call this afternoon that his company's technology will handle searches across unstructured information such as e-mails and office documents, as well as structured data such as databases, and "behavioral data."

For the most part, however, Microsoft and Fast were reticent about how Microsoft might possibly use Fast's technology in the Web search area.

Raikes said that Microsoft and Fast expect to engage in a planning process after the proposed acquisition has been approved by regulators.

"But we cannot go into detailed planning until we get through the regulatory period," he maintained.

Lasting about 30 minutes, today's phone session was much briefer than many other teleconferences held by vendors, which often go on for an hour or more.

After a couple of questions came up that touched lightly on Microsoft's possible future plans in the Web search arena, analysts and reporters were rather unexpectedly but politely told that Microsoft and Fast would answer only one more question before ending the call.

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