LOS ANGELES -- How much wood would a woodchuck chuck?
Asking that question through a leading Internet search engine turns up a mind-numbing 57.8 million choices, ranging from Web sites on rocker Chuck Berry to 19th century American history to golf pro Tiger Woods.
Now, research Web companies seeking the next Internet gold mine have begun delivering a revolutionary response -- the answer.
"Ask Jeeves!" (www.ask.com) may be among the first search engines to respond to simple-language questions instead of keywords.
By analyzing sentence construction, the site sorts a database of research and discards the ones that don't match, said Kathy Loewenstern, an exhibitor who advertised her wares at the Spring Internet World '99 convention, which ended Friday in Los Angeles.
It answers the perennial woodchuck question by finding a site describing the furry creature's metabolism.
The service is designed for simple answers such as "Who was the 13th president?" or "How deep is the ocean?" But as Ms. Loewenstern invited passers-by to "Ask it anything!" she often invited sarcasm.
"Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" typed conventioneer Harold Shapiro, a local technician for NBC.
"Jeeves" couldn't come up with a simple answer, directing the searcher to sites including ones with audio of a chicken or instructions on how to poach an egg.
But Mr. Shapiro, who tinkered on, said he was impressed with the site, which has received on average 2.4 million visitors a month.
"Most searches don't even come close to what you're looking for," he said. "It's nice to have some artificial intelligence there to narrow things down a little."
The Internet has exploded to more than 320 million Web pages and even the best search engines can cover no more than a third of them. Providing an answer to the frustration could prove lucrative.
"If it's easily accessible they'll make big bucks," said Hongjun Li, a Dallas-based technology analyst.
"Sites like this are slowly improving, mainly through better indexing," Mr. Li said. "They're trying to provide meaningful content in an easy way. And we haven't seen much of that."
Two other search engines, Goto.com and AltaVista.com, offer another route: They claim to reduce Internet clutter by inviting Web sites to purchase the top spots in their list of search results.
Under that design, a florist wishing to top competitors on the search results for the word "flower" would pay more to move to the head of the list.
But Mr. Li said such practices could exclude other relevant Web sites that refused to pay, keeping information from users.
The eShare NetAgent program may be a combination of both.
The company sets up a network for Web sites that enables users lost amid the clutter to put questions directly to a site. A live operator then answers and can help find and open the page the user seeks.
"They just open a little screen on the page that says `Hello. How can I help you?"' said exhibitor Bob Meehan. "Just like a salesman seeing someone walk into a car dealership or a clothing store."