OREN ETZIONI, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF COMPUTER science at the University of Washington, and Erik Selberg, a graduate student, have created a hydra-headed software robot--a "softbot"--to help Internet surfers find information. Called MetaCrawler, it harnesses several popular Web-searching systems, such as Lycos, InfoSeek, and Yahoo, all at once to do your bidding .
MetaCrawler, running at the university, sends requests to each system and merges their findings into a single display of relevant Web sites. All this takes from seconds to three minutes, Etzioni says, depending on the complexity of the search. He hopes the University of Washington will license the software to Netscape Communications Corp., Microsoft Corp., or another player with marketing muscle. Currently, the MetaCrawler Web site--http://metacrawler.cs.washington.edu:8080--is getting about 4,400 hits a day.