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Yahoo's Search Engine Continues Evolving

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Last October, Yahoo made the most significant change to how its search engine has operated since its birth, when it replaced its own human-powered listings with Google's crawler-based results. Just seven months later, the "New Yahoo Search" was rolled out in early April, complete with an online tour to tout the revamped service.

So what's different this time? Quite a bit, though fortunately the new improvements and features add to the earlier enhancements rather than distract from them.

Streamlined Look

A new page dedicated just to Yahoo Search has been added, allowing those who want to bypass all the Yahoo portal and network information that crowds the regular Yahoo home page. The Yahoo Search page presents a Google-like pure search face to the world. Default searches hit Yahoo's web search index, but tabs along the left-hand side of the page provide direct access to directory, news, Yellow Pages, image and map searching.

"A lot of people have said 'I want something a little more search oriented'," said Jeff Weiner, Yahoo's senior vice president for search and marketplace. "We're essentially giving our consumers a choice. When it comes to just pure searching, we think this is going to be delivering more of what our consumers want."

Of course, a really radical step would have been to make the Yahoo home page itself clean and more search oriented, then direct those users who want "portal" information to a portal home page, say something like portal.yahoo.com!

Regardless of whether you search from the Yahoo Search page or the Yahoo home page, you'll also encounter new tabs that appear at the top of the search results page. By default, the "Web" tab will have been selected and you'll be shown matching listings from across the web, still powered at the moment primarily by Google.

Select the Directory tab, and your search will be run only against sites that are listed within Yahoo's own human-compiled index of web sites. The News tab brings matches from across Yahoo's news content. All new tabs have been added for image searching, with information powered by Google Images, and Yellow Pages searching.

The easy access to Yellow Pages information is especially nice to see. When I need a local service, I still find myself reaching for my printed Yellow Pages, because that "low-tech" search method still works extremely well.

Searching Through Yellow Pages

Of course, online Yellow Pages searching isn't new, but it may be something that's overlooked by searchers. It's certainly worth a try at Yahoo, if your default web search for local information has come up disappointing.

For example, I've got a trip back to the US soon and need to stop by a skateboard shop. A search for skateboard shops in pasadena brought up a few possible matches, but would a Yellow Pages search do better? It was easy to check. By clicking on the Yellow Pages link at the top of the new Yahoo search results page, the same query was run against Yahoo's Yellow Pages information.

Sadly, there were no matches. But looking at the page that came back, I could see why. My original query was parsed, so that the city "Pasadena" was correctly placed into the city box of the Yellow Pages' search form. As for the subject? That was left as "skateboard shops in." By changing this to "skateboard shops," I did come up with a match.

Clearly the parsing in this case could have been better. However, another solution for searchers is to simply to do a Yellow Pages search from the very start, via the Yahoo Search home page. Ultimately, I'm not expecting perfection from the Yellow Pages option yet, but I'm glad to have easier access to it, for when I want to try.

Easy access also means that Yahoo users may begin to use the Yellow Pages option more than in the past. For this reason, it's worth considering how your business appears there. Yahoo says listings come from infoUSA, BellSouth and SBC. You may already be listed with one of these companies. If not, at least for infoUSA, you can request to be added or to have an existing listing changed via this form.

Disappearing Directory Categories

It's hard to believe, but only a year-and-a-half ago, a search on Yahoo might have brought up nothing but directory links. These links lead searchers not directly to external web sites but instead into Yahoo's human-compiled information, where searchers could then see a variety of web sites all related to a particular category.

Changes to the Yahoo search results page in October 2001 meant that only five top directory categories would be shown, then this was whittled to around three, over time. Nevertheless, the directory matches were still deemed important enough to have their own named section of the search results page.

Directory links do remain as part of the latest changes, but now they appear almost as an aside. Do a search for pancakes, and you'll see a line called "Categories" at the top of the page. Clicking on one of these links will bring you to a human-edited list of sites that matches the link's name, such as sites about Pancake Recipes.

In other cases, you may find the Categories line appearing within the Inside Yahoo section at the top of the results page, as in a search for cars. Wherever it appears, following these links can still be a useful way to refine your query to a particular topic. In addition, you should definitely try category links whenever you are interested in getting a list of high-quality sites on a particular topic.

While the directory category links do remain, the deemphasis on them means that potential detour traffic, as explained on the Yahoo Directory page for Search Engine Watch members, is likely to be diminished. If you were considering paying for a new Yahoo Directory listing or renewing an existing one, you'll want to factor this into your decision. However, other benefits of being listed in the Yahoo Directory remain. For anyone with a decent budget, getting a directory listing is probably a no-brainer decision.

New Shortcut Tricks For Yahoo Search

As part of the changes, Yahoo has formally unveiled a number of "shortcuts," methods to get directly to answers or specialty search results using words. The new Yahoo Tour has a nice page that illustrates these as well as a short guide to them, but here's also a rundown:

  • Get Maps: Use the word "map" and a location when searching, and you'll be shown an actual map at the top of your results, such as "map 1600 pennsylvania avenue washington dc" or "1600 pennsylvania avenue washington dc map"

  • Get Weather: Use the word "weather" with a place name and you'll be shown the weather for that area, such as with "pasadena weather"

  • Get Local Listings: Use a US ZIP CODE and a word, and you may be treated to local listings from Yahoo's Yellow Pages information, such as for "90210 shopping"

  • Get Dictionary Definitions: Need the definition of a word? A really slick new feature is to use the word "define" before the word, which will cause a definition to appear at the top of your results, such as for "define epitome." And your misspellings may even get caught, as well: "define epitime" and "define epitame" were both correctly identified as misspelled, for example.

  • Get News: Start your query with the word "news," and if Yahoo has any matching news content, it will display this prominently at the top of its results, such as for "news tornadoes"

  • Get Yahoo: Yahoo has a variety of services other than search, such as Yahoo Mail and Yahoo Shopping. If you know the name of a service and want to get to it quickly, just enter the name without the word Yahoo and with an exclamation mark, such as "mail!" or "shopping!," and you'll be taken right to it.

Ask Jeeves also recently moved to insert direct answers into its results, in what it calls "smart answers," so you may be assuming that this will be the next big thing to sweep search engines since Google revived AltaVista's original use of tabs.

This may well be the case, but ironically, we've had direct answers before. Back in 1998, then greatly expanded in 1999, Excite was doing what both Yahoo and Ask Jeeves have rolled out years later, using trigger word shortcuts and showing "answers" within its matches. Regardless of who did it first, it's nice to see such functionality return.

Finally, here's another last but useful Yahoo trip. Beside the title of each web page listing at Yahoo, you'll see a little icon. It's supposed to look like two computer windows on top of each other. Click on it, and the web page you've selected will appear in a new window, while the original window with your search results will remain.

What About Inktomi?

Yahoo closed the deal to acquire Inktomi in March, so many might have expected as part of the latest changes for Inktomi's web search results to have replaced Google's. Instead, not only is Google still there but Yahoo is leaning on it even more, such as to power the new image searching at Yahoo plus the new cached links available as part of web search listings.

So what's going on? My view is that we will definitely see Inktomi results at Yahoo in the near future. It makes no sense for Yahoo to have purchased the company then not make use of it. It's only a matter of when, though Yahoo's staying silent on when "when" will be.

"It's premature to talk about timelines for integration," Weiner said.

Even when Inktomi results do begin appearing at Yahoo, Google may also continue to be used by Yahoo in other ways.

"As always, we have a very flexible relationship with them," Weiner said.

What might Google do? Yahoo could mix Google and Inktomi results together. More likely, Yahoo will make use of Google to power its non-US properties, if it feels Inktomi's coverage isn't good enough in some places. Almost certainly, Yahoo will consider taking Google's paid listings for countries outside the US, as it currently does for Yahoo Japan (paid listings there also come from Overture).

What About Overture?

When Yahoo was briefing me on the planned changes a few days before they went live, the sample screenshots I was shown had Google-like paid listings in little boxes along the right-hand side of the search results page. Similar boxes have been spotted in the past few months by various people posting on search engine forums who encountered some sporadic testing done by Yahoo. For these people, the boxes contained additional paid listings from Overture.

So, were Overture listings going to appear in the new ad boxes as part of the April rollout, I asked. Yahoo wouldn't say. But surely they couldn't have anyone else's paid listings, I asked. After all, Yahoo has acknowledged in the past that Overture has an exclusive deal to provide it with third-party paid listings. As it turns out, that deal's not so exclusive.

"The relationship calls for specific implementation," Weiner said. "Suffice it to say, beyond the sponsored matches section, we have a lot of flexibility."

And that means? It could be that Yahoo will eventually fill these ads with more Overture listings. Alternatively, it might start to fill them with internally-sold listings, as it appears to be doing through existing ad programs (see this recent WebmasterWorld thread for some in-the-wild examples).

However, Yahoo could also consider running its own paid listings program alongside using Overture, just as Lycos currently does. Finally, there's the possibility that another third-party provider might be able to power listings along the right-hand side of the screen eventually -- perhaps Google?

In Conclusion

Overall, Yahoo described the latest changes as part of an "evolution" to improve its search service. It's a good word to use. Yahoo essentially had its revolution back in October, when it shifted to crawler-based results. The latest useful changes add but don't interfere with those previous changes. That's welcomed.

Indeed, it's especially important that the race by Yahoo and other search engines to catch Google does not subject searchers to massive redesigns every few months. AltaVista pursued such a strategy in the past, and its regular relaunches did little to reverse that service's decline in popularity. In my view, this was because most of the relaunches did little to improve the service's core relevancy. In addition, it's confusing and frustrating for loyal users to find things no longer work as they once did.


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