Park Hye-ran, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, wanted to know the shortest route from a bus terminal in the southern port city of Busan to a fish market to the east.
That is precisely the kind of question Cho In-joon, 50, a seller of lottery tickets in Busan, loves to answer.
Sitting at a computer installed at his street kiosk, Cho posted a reply for Park -- and for other Naver.com users who might one day ask the same question -- with instructions on where she should switch trains, where she should disembark, which station exit she should take and how long it would take to walk from there to the market. He even attached a map.
"When people I have never met thank me, I feel good," Cho said. "No one pays me for this. But helping other people on the Internet is addictive. I spend three hours a day on this work by cutting down on my sleeping time."
Thanks to Cho and tens of thousands of other respondents, Web users in one of the world's most wired countries seldom "Google" -- they "Naver."
Tapping a South Korean inclination to help one another on the Web has made Naver.com the leader of Internet search in the country. It handles more than 77 percent of all Web searches originating in South Korea, thanks largely to content generated by people like Park and Cho.
Daum.net, another search portal, comes in second with a 10.8 percent share, followed by Yahoo's Korean-language service with 4.4 percent.
Google, which became the top search engine in the world based largely on its spare, no-frills interface, barely registers in the country's online consciousness, handling just 1.7 percent of South Korean Web searches, according to KoreanClick, an Internet market research company.
"No matter how powerful Google's search engine may be," said Wayne Lee, an analyst at Woori Investment and Securities, "it doesn't have enough Korean-language data to trawl to satisfy South Korean customers."
Naver's success has surprised many. When NHN, an online gaming company, set up the search portal in 1999, the site looked like a grocery store where most of the shelves were empty. Like Google, Naver found that with few people other than Koreans using the language, there simply was not enough Korean text in cyberspace to make a Korean search engine a viable business.
"So we began creating Korean-language text," said Lee Kyung-ryul, an NHN spokesman. "At Google, users basically look for data that already exists on the Internet. In South Korea, if you want to be a search engine, you have to create your own database."
The strategy was right on the money. In this country, where over 70 percent of a population of 48 million use the Internet, most of them with high-speed connections, people do not just want information when they log on; they want a sense of community and the kind of human interaction provided by Naver's "Knowledge In" real-time question-and-answer platform.
Each day 16 million people visit Naver -- whose name combines "neighbor" and "navigator" -- keying 110 million queries into its standard, Google-like search function. But Naver users also post an average 44,000 questions a day at Knowledge iN, the interactive Q&A database. These receive about 110,000 answers, ranging from one-sentence replies to academic essays complete with footnotes.
The format, which Naver introduced in 2002, has become a must-have feature for Korean search portals. The portals maintain the questions and answers in proprietary databases not shared with other portals or with search engines like Google. When a visitor to a portal does a Web search, its search engine yields relevant items from its own Q&A database along with traditional search results from news sites and Web pages.
Naver has so far accumulated a user-generated database of 70 million entries. Typical queries include why North Korea is building a nuclear bomb, which digital music player is best, why people have cowlicks and what a high-school boy should do when he has a crush on a female teacher.
Lacking the full-time editorial oversight found on Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, some Naver entries are of dubious veracity and attract vigorous rebuttals. But many respondents, eager to build and maintain an online reputation, do careful research to provide useful answers.
"I am no scholar, but I know how to get from place A to B in my town," said Cho, who has answered 2,520 Knowledge iN questions, mostly on traffic routes in Busan. "The best thing about Knowledge iN is that you can pick people's brains whenever you want."
Leveraging the so-called collective intelligence of Web users has become a way of life in South Korea, dramatically changing people's assumptions about what they can accomplish online.
Thanks to its success in the search engine market, NHN is now the most profitable Internet firm in South Korea. The company, which employs 27,000 workers, posted 299 billion won (US$325 million) in profit out of 573 billion won in sales last year. It has a market value of nearly 8 trillion won.
The firm also runs a popular online gaming site, known as Hangame in South Korea and Japan, and as Ourgame in China. But its Naver search engine -- which sells advertisements and links to commercial Web sites that pop up when a user searches for certain words -- generated 52 percent of NHN revenue last year. Naver took 61 percent of all Web search-related ads last year in South Korea, according to the company.
As with the product reviews found on Amazon.com or the seller feedback mechanism on eBay, Naver users are invited to rate the quality of posted answers. Naver and the other South Korean portals also have monitors who screen out pornography, libel, copyrighted material and advertisements.
Park, the high-school student, gave Cho's answer a perfect five-star rating and thanked him through Naver's instant messaging service. To reward Cho's active supply of quality answers in the past two years, Naver recently named him an "honorary intellectual," a status coveted among Naver contributors.
When Daum, Naver's largest local competitor, began making a big push into the Korean search engine market last year, it turned to its 6.7 million virtual "Internet cafes," which are not the physical structures the term usually refers to but online user groups built around shared interests.
The biggest cafes, which have up to 3 million members, create massive pools of material supplied by people who, for example, went to the same school, support or oppose a free trade agreement with the US or share an interest in hiking in the mountains.
Opening up its cafes to its search engine, Daum's market share increased by nearly 30 percent in two years. It took in 22.8 billion won in ad revenue in the first quarter of this year, up 42 percent from a year ago.
Google, which started its search service in the Korean language in 2000, is not just sitting back.
"It's obvious to me that [South] Korea is a great laboratory of the digital age," Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google, said in Seoul in May, when Google unveiled an upgraded Korean-language service.
It also opened a research lab here in 2006 and is in talks with Daum about the possibility of sharing content and technology.
Google's new Korean version deviates from the search engine's bare-bones style. Its simpler-is-better style never took off in South Korea, where people prefer portal sites that resemble department stores, filled with eye-catching animation and multiple features.
Yahoo Korea, once the country's top portal but now a distant third in the search market with a 4.4 percent share, is not only adapting to local taste but exporting it to Yahoo services elsewhere in the world.
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