Mr Diller's InterActiveCorp (IAC) is a curious invention put together by an enigmatic man. Its future health may depend on how internet search evolves. Searching for information, products and prices through sites such as Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft's MSN and AOL is now one of the main uses of the internet, and the hottest area for online advertising, through the use of sponsored links. But Ask Jeeves trails in sixth place behind this bunch, with only a 1.8% market share, says Nielsen//NetRatings, a firm of analysts. And competition is increasing. Amazon too has developed a powerful new search facility, called A9.

But this business is relatively new and Mr Diller reckons there is still much to play for. After all, who would have forecast only a few years ago that Amazon would sell more consumer-electronic goods than books? Or that eBay's hottest online auction category would be used cars? Or that online search could be a hugely profitable business? (Not even Microsoft foresaw that, which is why it initially ignored the search business.)

IAC is only nine years old. Mr Diller became captivated by the internet only after a successful career at Paramount Pictures, ABC, Fox Broadcasting and, finally, USA Networks (whose TV, cable and other entertainment assets he sold to France's Vivendi Universal for more than $10 billion in 2001). In recent years he has mostly been shopping online. In 1999, Mr Diller tried to merge with Lycos—then a hot “portal” which many said would come to rule the internet. The deal was sunk by shareholders, although Mr Diller still wonders about what might have been. Perhaps Lycos might have been the “unifying force” that he hopes Ask Jeeves will now become for his various businesses.

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