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Yahoo Launches Desktop Search

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Long anticipated, Yahoo's new Desktop Search beta is a solid contender in the increasingly crowded desktop search playing field.

Yahoo Desktop Search (YDS) joins Copernic, Google, HotBot, MSN, Ask Jeeves and many others in an effort to provide a richer, more integrated search experience.

Yahoo licensed the technology for YDS from X1, a desktop search developer owned by Idealab (Idealab also spawned current Yahoo subsidiary Overture, so there's a history between the companies). For now, there's little difference between the X1 application and YDS, but Yahoo intends to develop customized features for YDS over the coming year, said Bradley Horowitz, director of media search and desktop at Yahoo.

YDS indexes a wide range of files on your computer, including Microsoft Office files, Outlook or Outlook express emails, attachments, contacts, pictures and music—more than 200 different filetypes, in all.

I like the look and feel of Yahoo Desktop Search. It's a full screen application, and the interface is intuitive and very easy to use. It's similar to Windows explorer, but adds some powerful features that make it easy to work with information on your computer once you've located it.

"Particularly with desktop search, you're searching with something with the intention of acting on it, said Horowitz.

The left pane has forms and controls for performing searches. Beneath these controls is a list of current files that match your search criteria. The right pane displays a preview of files selected from this list.

Above the left pane is a search form and buttons that let you limit your search to email, attachments, contacts, files, music, pictures or files of all types. Clicking one of these buttons displays a set of additional search forms tailored to finding items in that format.

For example, with files you can limit your search to filenames, type, dates and time, size or path information. Yahoo calls these "advanced search" options, though they're extremely easy to use. Limiters for other file types include:

  • Email search: From, To, Subject, Date/Time, Email Folder Name, Attachment File Name
  • Email attachments: From, To, Subject, Date/Time, Attachment Name, File Type, File Size, and Email Folder Name
  • File, Picture and Music search: File Name, File Type, Date/Time, File Size, Directory/Path, Folder Name
  • Contacts search: File As, Company, Job Title, Categories

Search results are displayed in Explorer-like format as filenames with additional information. But rather than showing a snippet of a file and making you click a link to see the full document, YDS goes beyond most other desktop search applications by displaying a preview of a selected file in the right pane. "Our application allows you to preview your results in a millisecond, which saves you a tremendous about of time culling from your result set," said Horowitz.

To view your results, simply click a filename in the left pane, and you'll see a virtually instantaneous view of the file in the right pane. With documents, your search terms are also highlighted in the preview. Audio and video files are queued up in a mini Windows Media player, allowing you to listen to or watch the files directly from YDS.

At the top of the preview pane are buttons that allow you to take action with found content: Open a file, open an email, forward an email, print a document and so on. Horowitz calls these context-specific functions "verbs," and "you'll see that list of verbs increase over time," he said.

My initial impression of search quality is favorable. YDS supports phrase searching and Boolean queries, though I found little need for either with most queries. Searching works particularly well when you restrict results by one of the limiters such as filename, filetype and so on.

Both searching and indexing are fast. The indexing process is also polite. Though YDS indexed the 20 gigabyte hard drive on my laptop in just under 45 minutes, I was able to continue working without interruption.

Unlike other desktop search applications, web search isn't well integrated into YDS, at least yet. Though there is a button for Yahoo web search, all this does is bring up the search.yahoo.com page in a separate version of Internet Explorer.

Also missing from YDS is one of the most useful features of Google's desktop search—the automatic indexing and caching of web pages you've viewed with Internet Explorer. Yahoo puts an interesting spin on this omission, saying that YDS maintains web privacy by not indexing or caching the content you've viewed on the web. While that's certainly a valid concern for people who share a computer, or work in publicly accessible spaces, it would be nice to at least have the option to auto-index viewed web content.

That's the plan, says Horowitz. "Our approach will to be to give users the right control knobs. With desktop search we're going to be empowering users to make the choices they want."

Yahoo does note one security problem in this beta release of YDS:

"If you are an Outlook email user and you have archived email into a Personal Folder (.PST) file and have chosen to password protect that file, Yahoo Desktop Search will index those files. When you do an email search, if one of the emails that matches your query is in a password-protected Personal Folder archive file, you will be able to preview that result in the Preview Pane. We are aware of this problem and will fix it in a subsequent release."

In all, Yahoo Desktop Search is a useful tool, with an approach to desktop search that's different and good enough to earn it a space alongside the other desktop search applications that I've been testing. Horowitz calls it a "living beta," and says that Yahoo has aggressive plans to integrate YDS with other Yahoo products, such as photos, briefcase, calendar and the personalized web search results from My Yahoo Search.

"It's a foundation from which we intend to grow, and this beta is intended to open up a dialog with our user base," said Horowitz. Stay tuned.

System Requirements

Yahoo Desktop Search Beta - Free download

Microsoft Windows 2000 SP3 or SP4
Microsoft Windows XP
128MB RAM (256MB recommended)
50MB free hard disk space, minimum

There is no Mac or Linux version of the program available.

Want to discuss or comment on this story? Join the Yahoo Joins Desktop Search Battle discussion in the Search Engine Watch forums.

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