To the intellect, it is a Semitic language that dates back to the 6th century, defining history and our understanding of humankind. We hear the melody, intonation and variety across the Arab world, and to the eyes it can be a calligrapher’s work of art.
The Arabic language is used by over 250 million people, and as the population of the Arab world rises, so to does the need to use it. But the increased demand for Arabic content on the Internet has brought with it the complexity of sorting, organising and making it easily available.
Current technology for finding Arabic content is limited. Some people think things need to be shaken up, and this where a sandstorm can be handy, or in Arabic, Sawafi.com. This is being built by the Saudi MITSCO group and the German Seekport.
This soon to be launched search engine is being developed specifically to make Arabic content accessible. “The Arabic Internet market is among the fastest growing markets in the IT world. Sawafi will open up entirely new opportunities, as the availability of an intelligent Arab search engine will motivate publishing Arab content and could very soon double or triple the existing 100 million Arab pages on the web. At the same time, we will see a dramatic increase of Arab Internet users who are predominantly non-English speaking, Hermann Haverman, managing director of Seekport, tells The Daily Star Egypt.
There are some Arabic search facilities already available and being run by some big players, but the search facilities are limited to wading through a directory. You might compare an Arabic Web site to an Arabic company listed in the English yellow pages, but that has no phone number or address, and is spelt wrong.
“Most search engines are actually designed to crawl Web sites and categorize them in English. The process is very complicated by the way, but look how Google gives you results in milliseconds, says Ahmed Shazly. As an Internet security consultant for a multinational technology corporation in Egypt, he sees Sawafi as potentially doing very well here. “For Egypt, it will mean more exposure, definitely. You will get more results, and results that you want. Egyptian Web sites will not be the sole beneficiaries of Sawafi, all Arabic sites will do well … Sawafi will be stealing a lot of Google s glimmer.
Egyptian Ahmed Samir, senior systems engineer for IST Networks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (KSA), is not so certain. “It will have to all be in Arabic. From what I see here, in KSA, people are getting used to google.sa for Arabic support. It will take time to overcome the domination of them and Yahoo, that’s for sure, he says.
But Havermann doesn’t see Sawafi as weighing in against the giants. “We are not going to be competing with Google and Yahoo on a global basis. These are excellent search facilities and are like a requirement for the Internet now. But search needs are becoming more and more local and that’s where we see a need for the Arab community. Havermann says.
Though you will also be able to search in English with Sawafi for Arabic content, Havermann does concede the difficulties that Arabic presents. “The Arabic language is complicated. You can write a certain word in formal Arabic that will be completely different in colloquial Arabic, which affects the kind of search results you get, the colloquial often giving you many more results, he says.
When Sawafi launches, it will be capable of searching web pages and weblogs, and at a later stage, image and product searches. This will no doubt be of tremendous use to the region and potential for exchange of information is dramatic, and was spotted some time ago. “First contact was back in October 2004 at the preparatory conference of Arab nations for the WSIS (World Summit on the Information Society) organized by ESQWA in Damascus. Government representatives as well as consultants were highly interested in an Arab Internet search engine managed by Arabs for Arabs. We saw the opportunity and asked Madar Research to do a thorough analysis of the Arabic Internet Market, he says
There is no denying the lucrative advertising possibilities that lie ahead of this search engine. According to Mader research, Arabic speakers currently represent 5 percent of the world’s population and 2 percent of the world’s Internet users. Arabic web pages constitute just 0.1 percent of Internet web pages with an estimated 100 million Arabic pages. But this number is doubling every year. The number of Arab users searching the Internet in Arabic is expected to surge to 43.3 million people by end 2008.
In being sensitive about Internet pages that should respect cultural, religious or community values, Sawafi intends to put quality control teams in many of the Arab countries, Egypt included.
“[Egypt] is possibly the most important country. With its population of 70 million, the Internet penetration will be huge, and it is absolutely where we will have an office, says Havermann.
The Arabic front-end will be built for Arabic content as well as have the ability to search it in both Arabic and English