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A Closer Look at Yahoo Shortcuts

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Continuing our four-part series on the special information sections creeping into general search results, today we take a look at Yahoo Shortcuts.

In the last 2 weeks I wrote about Ask's Smart Answers and Microsoft's Instant Answers. In the final installment, I will introduce Google OneBox results. These articles are brief introductions to the services with a lot of examples for you to explore.

According to Director of Product Management, Mihir Shah, the purpose of Yahoo Shortcuts is to:

  • Provide direct answers in the results

  • Provide useful vertical search content

  • Provide deep links into sites with relevant content

  • Enhance the freshness of the results page
Yahoo has 32 defined Shortcuts which have become part of the core search experience. As with Ask’s Smart Answers, Live’s Instant Answers, and Google’s OneBox results, Yahoo provides all the basic Shortcuts: News, Weather, Dictionary Definitions, Stock Quotes and Package Tracker. These are easily triggered by typing [topic” news, [city” weather, define [word”, [ticker symbol” quote, FedEx [tracking code”. But Yahoo also has a couple tricks up its sleeves.

I asked Mihir if all of Yahoo Shortcuts were technology driven or if there was any human involvement in the selection process. He told me it’s based on technology, but editorial and user generated content is used to enhance the Shortcut experience.

“For news Shortcuts, for instance, the Yahoo News editorial team is leveraged to ensure that fresh topics are highlighted,” he said.

As for the user generated content, Mihir explained “with local shortcuts you'll see stars indicating ratings and reviews which have been developed by our community. Movies are another example of this. For ‘Departed 20007’, the new movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, and Matt Damon, the Shortcut returns local movie listings and a link to the trailer, but also ratings from Critics and Yahoo users.” Additionally, photos from Flickr often show up as the Image Shortcut as opposed to just Yahoo Image Search results. Type in 'interesting pictures' and you’re likely to get tagged photos from the Flickr community.

As for which Yahoo Shortcuts get the most usage, Mihir said it’s the Local and Map Shortcuts. And it’s pretty obvious why. Because these Shortcuts work off of local directories like the Yellow Pages, there are an incredible amount of triggers. The searcher can enter a city and business name (Seattle, Washington Evo) or a more general term like pizza and zip code (pizza 10010) to get the Local Shortcut. The user can also enter any street address to get the Map Shortcut (367 addison ave., palo alto, ca).

I particularly like the Map Shortcut as it not only provides a map of the area, but also returns links for driving directions to and from the location. I think most people still go to Yahoo Maps then click on directions to access driving directions. Using the Yahoo Map Shortcut will clearly shave a couple seconds off a search. Finally, the Map Shortcut includes a link to ‘What’s Nearby’ which works off of Yahoo’s City Guides. Again, as opposed to going to Yahoo Local and then searching, Map Shortcut users get one-click access to user generated favorites and general Yellow Page listings.

So how does Yahoo decide on new shortcuts? According to Mihir “The number one criteria is the user value. We analyze what type of queries might benefit [from a Shortcut” and then decide what kind of Shortcut to implement. We draw on Yahoo’s great content which makes it easy to provide value to user. Shortcuts are not based on what people have paid.” In the end, Yahoo leverages it’s wealth of content. Searching for Robin Williams, for example, returns links for the artist’s page, downloads, videos, photos, and fan radio. In other words, Yahoo is pulling from Yahoo Movies, Yahoo Image Search, and Yahoo Music.

Of the few Shortcuts which Mihir and I discussed that didn’t leverage Yahoo’s content was the Gas Prices Shortcut (Gas Prices Stamford, CT) powered by Gas Buddy.

So moving past all the obvious Shortcuts like Images/Flickr (cat photo, Aston martin picture, Washington Monument image), area code lookup (480, 616, 919), and exchange rate information (covert 1 dollar to yen - this shortcut seems very limited), Yahoo’s Open Shortcuts open up a whole new set of possibilities.

Yahoo's Open Shortcuts act as personal keywords. If there’s a site you often search, setting an open shortcut for that site will allow you to search that site directly from the Yahoo search box. A great example is eBay. As opposed to typing in www.ebay.com and then searching for 'pez dispensers', you could just enter !ebay pez dispensers from the Yahoo search box. Other pre-set shortcuts include Amazon (!amazon [insert search term”), Flickr (!flickr [insert search term”), and Wikipedia (!wiki [insert search term”). Here's the full list of available open shortcuts.

Now these are ‘open’ shortcuts for a reason. Users can set their own shortcuts. For example, I often search my own blog, ComparisonEngines, for past stories. I used to have to go to www.comparisonengines.com then search for ‘yahoo shopping.' Now I just have to type '!ce2 yahoo shopping' and I’m brought directly to the search results page.

To set this shortcut, I entered '!set ce2 http://www.comparisonengines.com/index.php?s=%s' into the Yahoo search box. Yes, it looks a little complicated, but there’s a basic structure to set these up. Read the directions. You have to be logged into your Yahoo account to use this feature, and you can’t currently share your open shortcuts with others.

Besides searching a favorite site, open shortcuts can be used to access current Yahoo Shortcuts more quickly. For instance, I’m a New York Rangers fan, so I set a shortcut to search for New York Rangers scores. One of Yahoo’s Shortcuts provides sports scores already, but typing in !nyr (which I set up) as opposed to new york rangers scores saves me a couple seconds.

Mihir also highlighted Yahoo Shortcuts' mobile connection, a feature neither Ask nor Microsoft discussed with me. Building on Yahoo’s Mobile strategy and the vision of connecting PCs to mobile to TV, many of Yahoo Shortcuts can be accessed through a cell phone using SMS or by going to Yahoo.com on your phone’s browser. You can search for local listings, weather, dictionary definitions, stock quotes, daily horoscopes, and more. Here's the complete list of SMS Search Shortcuts. Just text a search to 92466 (YAHOO). One mobile shortcut that I’ve started to use is local weather. I texted 'los altos weather' to 92466 and now just reply to the message every day to get an updated forecast.

Other notable or new Shortcuts that Mihir discussed:

Flight and hotel comparisons which work off of Yahoo FareChase. Just search for flight from SJC to SEA or compare Orlando Hotels and a FareChase widget appears.

Motion picture trailers, which work off of Yahoo Movies. Just search for Casino Royale Trailer.

Videos, which work off of Yahoo Music and Yahoo Video Search. Yes, searching for hips don’t lie video gives the obvious result, but searchers can also try funny video or cat video.

Brian Smith is a correspondent for Search Engine Watch and an independent analyst covering shopping and vertical search. He recently launched SingleFeed, a data feed management and submission service for small and medium sized businesses.

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