- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 9, 2006

A search engine company has begun offering free sneak peeks at premium, pay-for-view Internet content.

Consumers need provide only their e-mail address, ZIP code and country; no names or credit card numbers are required.

Dozens of publishers have signed up, but industry analysts question whether everyday Web users are hungry for material they otherwise might not know exists.

Congoo.com makes restricted or subscription-only Web content from Business Wire, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online and other publishers available free to anyone who downloads its NetPass toolbar.

The Branchburg, N.J., company also has five years’ worth of archives for more than 200 publications, including the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News and The Washington Times.

“The main reason [The-Street.com Inc. signed with Congoo] is because there’s no good way through the major search engines to effectively — or at all, frankly — to search for content that’s behind a firewall,” said Nikesh Desai, vice president of business development at the financial services company in New York.

As an example, Mr. Desai said, regular searches for information on “stock investments” yield free content or advertiser-sponsored links, when more relevant data might be available behind a paid firewall. “And it gives the user a taste of that content without putting a credit card down,” he added.

“Anything with paid content is on our target list,” including Washington-area political and business publications that are in “various stages of discussions,” said Ash Nashed, Congoo’s founder.

Like search engine leader Google Inc., Congoo’s NetPass provides matches for any word or phrase. The company makes money by selling ads and offering premium listings on top of typical Web query results.

But NetPass search, which is powered by the second most popular engine, Yahoo Inc., also indexes and displays exclusive information normally protected by publishers’ firewalls.

“The pitch to consumers is challenging,” said David Card, senior analyst with JupiterResearch in New York, because they might not be aware of the inaccessibility of certain information using traditional search engines.

“They have to teach consumers that is the case and that they can get access for free,” he said.

With free trials, six times more people are willing to pay for content, Mr. Card said.

NetPass users typically are granted free access to four to 15 articles per month per publisher.

Congoo users are “in the thousands and growing every day,” Mr. Nashed said, declining to provide specific figures. He expects a “couple million” users and to be profitable by year’s end.

Mr. Nashed, a doctor who spent 15 years practicing medicine and teaching, said he came up with the concept after medical students complained that they could not gain access to requested articles in online journals without a subscription.

Four years after filing an application in 1999, he received the software patent that enables the NetPass toolbar to communicate directly with the publisher’s premium content, differentiating it from other information aggregators that keep the content on their own servers and charge for access.

Mr. Nashed would not disclose terms of its financial agreements with publishers.

Mr. Desai said no fees were exchanged between TheStreet.com and Congoo.

NetPass requires Microsoft Corp.’s Internet Explorer browser. A version compatible with Mozilla Corp.’s Firefox browser should be ready this week, but the toolbar is not compatible with Apple Computer Inc.’s Macintosh, which does not support toolbar downloads, Mr. Nashed said.

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