boston.com Business your connection to The Boston Globe
SCOTT KIRSNER | ENTERTAINMENT 2.0

Search key words: Internet videos

Start-ups and stalwart tackle unwieldy task of finding, organizing content

TVGuide.com plans to launch its own guide to online video in mid-April.

Used to be that the day's television viewing options could be presented rather comprehensively by a couple pages in TV Guide or the daily newspaper.

That's no longer the case, now that such networks as NBC produce exclusive Web-only content for such hit shows as "The Office," Internet-based programming such as "Ask A Ninja" and "The Show with Ze Frank" attract sizable audiences, and users upload videos of their own -- at the rate of more than 100,000 clips a day.

"When we started searching for video, in 2003, there were hundreds of video providers," says Gary Baker, chief executive of ClipBlast Inc., a guide to Internet video in Agoura Hills, Calif. "We're now into the thousands, and soon we'll be into the tens of thousands."

With that explosion in the amount of video available, is there a way to make sense of it all?

Several start-up companies, such as ClipBlast, Channels.com, Blinkx, and MeeVee Inc., are trying to develop a TV Guide for Internet video. And they're competing with none other than TVGuide.com, part of Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc., which plans to launch its own guide to online video next month.

The amount of videos pouring onto the Web isn't the only challenge they face. Some content isn't described well, or accurately.

"You might have a couple of guys fooling around in front of a camera who want their video to get watched a lot, and they use the term 'Britney Spears' to describe it, so it shows up in lots of searches," says Neil Kjeldsen, vice president of marketing and content at MeeVee in Burlingame, Calif.

And then there's the problem of transience: an Internet video that appears one day may vanish the next, either because it was posted without the permission of the copyright holder, or simply because it's no longer newsworthy. "We have to battle with that all the time," says Suranga Chandratillake, co-founder of the San Francisco video search company Blinkx.

Blinkx approaches the problem of finding interesting video with a simple, empty search box. (The site also offers a visually captivating "video wall" of news and entertainment clips that have recently appeared online.) You've got to know what you're hunting for.

"Search is extremely natural for text-based media, and that is what the Web has been for the last 10 or 12 years," says Hilmi Ozguc, an entrepreneur whose Cambridge company, Maven Networks Inc., helps companies distribute their video on the Internet. "But it's not natural to search for video."

MeeVee takes a different approach than Blinkx, asking users to specify some TV shows, topics, and hobbies they're interested in, and then creating two pages that collect all the related videos it can find. One of the customized pages is called "Network Video" -- material from such mainstream media sites as iFilm, ABC.com, and MSN; the other is called "Community Video," which includes video-sharing sites such as YouTube and Dailymotion, where users can post all sorts of content.

ClipBlast is one of the oldest of the video search sites, and later this month, the company will unveil a version that attempts to divide all Web video, whether from networks, independent producers, or individual users, into such categories as "Sports," "Fashion," "Commercials," and "Fight Video." (That last category is surprisingly popular online.)

The new design includes two animated tickers at the top of the screen, one of which lists the titles of videos being added into the site's database and another that lists the providers whose videos are included in the site. Clicking on "Barack Obama" on the provider ticker, for example, gives you all of the senator's videos.

Oddly, one player who isn't yet involved in the stakes to become Internet video's TV Guide is Google. The search engine's database of videos only includes those hosted on Google and YouTube -- and nothing that lives anywhere else.

"We anticipate that Google will come out with a video search capability for across the Web, but indexing video is a completely different process than indexing text-based Web pages," says Gary Baker at ClipBlast. "It's not an insignificant thing for them to do."

Other sites, such as Channels.com, StupidVideos, and TheDailyReel, opt to be selective rather than comprehensive. "Ultimately, people need the content filtered, and they need context," writes Jamie Patricof, cofounder of The Daily Reel, via e-mail. Patricof's site produces a list of its 10 favorite Internet videos every day, which eschews content from the mainstream media to focus on music videos and such quick-hit parodies as "Pimp My Stroller."

The new guide that TV Guide plans to launch in mid-April will also be choosy. It'll provide an overview of video content from 49 websites, mostly operated by traditional broadcasters and cable networks.

"More people are looking for clips of 'The Office' or 'The Daily Show' than want to see your cat on a skateboard," says Paul Greenberg, general manager of TV Guide Online.

In a demo of the new TV Guide site, searching for NBC's "The Office" brings back 222 videos from three sources: NBC.com, iFilm, and iTunes. The same search conducted on Blinkx returns 304,000 videos -- and none of those on the first page of results is from the show.

Kirsten Rasanen, TV Guide Online's director of product development, says that some non-network content will be folded in at some point, "but we're not going to index 2 million viral videos, just 20 or 30 or 40. The ones that users are really looking for."

Eventually, intelligent recommendation software might help viewers sift through the Sahara of online video to find the grains they care about. Just as Amazon and Netflix recommend books and movies you might enjoy based on your past purchases or rentals, websites might point you to videos based on your past viewing.

But an older form of recommendation may prove equally powerful: a tip from a friend. Anyone, Chandratillake points out, can now act like a TV Guide editor by sending you a link to a video.

Of course, he adds, "We all have friends who will forward anything, and others who will only forward things really worth watching."

Scott Kirsner is a freelance writer in San Francisco who maintains a blog on entertainment and technology, cinematech. .blogspot.com. He can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES