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Yahoo My Web: An eBay For Knowledge

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Yesterday, Chris wrote about the new Yahoo My Web social search network. I expect many will be excited over the tagging component, but I remain dubious for many reasons which I cover in another article I posted today. But whether tagging works is beside the main point. What deserves the most attention, the real key development, are the trust networks for knowledge Yahoo hopes to create.

I got a tour of the new system while it was in development, when I was visiting at Yahoo last month. After seeing what was planned, I remarked to Yahoo senior vice president of search Jeff Weiner sitting next to me that they were building "an eBay for knowledge." Jeff was already literally bouncing at times with excitement in showing the new system, and the remark made him smile even more broadly.

He smiled because that's exactly the Yahoo goal. My Web is Yahoo's community rating system for information. Just as you buy things on eBay depending on ratings to know if you'll trust a seller, My Web is what Yahoo hopes will help you choose more wisely the information you receive, whether you actively check reviews, contribute or remain an ordinary searcher who completely ignores the tagging and social search components.

In short, Yahoo's not banking on tagging -- the categorization of material -- as a way to help people find things better. It's banking that the mere act of saving things at all, even without tags, will give them a clue about what are trusted pages across the web. By looking at patterns of saving, Yahoo will have trust networks to tap into.

Searching Everyone's Pages, Trust Networks & Public Experts

Chris's Yahoo Integrates Personal & Social Search with My Web 2.0 article explains how searchers can seek information posted into the My Web system. My new A Search Marketer's Look At Yahoo My Web 2.0 article posted today for Search Engine Watch members drills down in depth about what exactly you can and cannot locate in the system and how various components work.

The big missing component is that there's no way currently to search against the "Everyone's Web" content, pages saved by everyone using the My Web 2.0 system. In other words, despite there being around 20,000 pages now saved by everyone in the community (and growing fast), you can only keyword search against content saved by those specifically within your "community" of contacts.

That's going to change in the future, once Yahoo's ready. Trust networks are the missing piece to make that happen.

"Eventually, we'll have 'search everyone' enabled," said Eckart Walther vice president of product management at Yahoo. "In the future, you will be able to see what others share. You can choose to add others to your trust network."

By adding others, Walther means that you can choose to add other people's choices to your own My Web collection of documents, even if they don't wish to network formally with you. It's an important point, because it leads into the public experts system that Yahoo wants to see evolve in the system.

Right now, the only people impacting what you search for are those who have agreed to be in your community -- your friends and friends of friends. But what if you see that there is someone you really respect on a particular topic participating? Consider:

  • If Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, is tagging content relating to the web, you might want to have him added as an expert to influence what you see.
     
  • Like Oprah Winfrey? Then you might want her to have an influence on your results, if she's tagging and saving pages in all her spare time.
     
  • Into business with a rebel attitude? If Virgin's Sir Richard Branson were in the system, he might be attractive as an expert for you to add.
     
  • Interested in internet and technology law and like what Lawrence Lessig has to say? Then you'd probably like him to help influence your results.

In the current system -- assuming such celebrities were taking part -- you couldn't tap into them unless you knew them directly or were connected by a friend or friend of a friend.

That will change in the future. Not only will you be able to add anyone to your network, but Yahoo wants to evolve the system to help you better spot and use people they'll consider "public experts" you can tap into. Chances are, they won't be giant celebrities. But there will be a range of people regarded as knowledgeable in their areas that you'll likely be able to trust.

In addition, the company will be able to watch how networks begin to expand and rate content. It expects that there will be all sorts of data that can be mined to help rank results better, for when people are doing searches against "Everyone's Web" saved pages.

"We can figure out what all these people have in their trust network. We expect to have several thousand networks emerge immediately. We can then overlay those," Walther said.

Trust Networks As The New Link Analysis

Trust won't just be used against My Web content. Yahoo is going to use trust networks to refine all of its web search results -- in other words, searches on "regular" Yahoo.

In October, I explained to Search Engine Watch members that My Web data was something Yahoo was "considering" using. It isn't considering any longer. The company says My Web data will definitely be used to refine results for everyone in the future.

Why? Yahoo knows that despite all the saving that will go on, people will never save all the billions of pages on the web that it already indexes. Instead, what Yahoo accumulate a lot of information on what various trust networks within My Web seem to like. That can be applied to improve the rankings of all pages it indexes, not just those within the My Web area.

We've had a generation of search engines that depended on on-the-page factors such as word location and frequency. We've had a current second generation that tapped into link analysis, looking at how people are linking and what they say in links.

Personal search is that third generational jump, and Yahoo's flavor of personal search is a social network one that it hopes will improve relevancy in web wide results in the way that link analysis helped drive back spam and improve relevancy years ago.

"We're creating personal anchor text for pages, but by having a trust network, we can actually pretty much eliminate spamming," Walther said.

Will Trust Get Spammed?

Hmm. Link analysis has degraded over the years as people learned how to manipulate links. Aren't there going to be plenty of spammers and people trying to mislead the trust networks? Aren't there going to be a lot of well-meaning people who will nonetheless save horrible pages that they love for all the wrong reasons and categorize them terribly?

Sure. Yahoo admits all of this readily. But Yahoo is confident that these types of extremes will be lost among the overall quality it expects to dominate.

"Even if some there are some false positives in an extended trust network, the odds are much better that you won't get spammed compared to the wide web," Walther said.

Social Search Faces More Trust Vulnerabilities

The trust idea makes a lot of sense. Having a set of trusted pages that a search engine can depend on is at the core of the TrustRank system described in a paper written by both Google and Yahoo employees. If you know which pages you can trust, then you can boost them plus let them boost other pages by weighting what they link to more heavily. But to know those trusted pages, you ultimately need human beings to give you a collection.

MSN's new Neural Net / RankNet system which emerged this week seems to tap into a small set of humans doing trust training. Trust there is hard to influence -- hard to spam -- given you don't even know who is creating the core trusted documents.

The new Google Personalized Search service taps into trust by just looking at what you personally select in your searching activities. Influencing or all-out spamming trust there is even harder than with MSN, in that every individual is creating their own set of core trusted documents.

Advice to marketers looking to do better in both systems above? Very little. Have good content and hope for the best. Be trustworthy. There aren't entry points for you to directly influence the systems.

Yahoo's new My Web 2.0 system is ambitious. By virtual of being a social search network, it has various places where trust can be influenced or potentially spammed. In fact, I've been shaking my head a bit over all the time it's taken to closely examine the Yahoo system to figure out where and how things might go wrong.

Advice to marketers looking to do better in the Yahoo system? Lots and lots, as A Search Marketer's Look At Yahoo My Web 2.0 covers.

Different Paths, Same Goal -- Better Relevancy Through Personalization

All of search marketing lives with a poor reputation that isn't completely deserved. SEO -- and SEM by extension -- took another slam today from Matthew Haughey of Metafilter, who puts us on par with cockroaches.

But search marketers have long influenced search engines in good ways to help them locate quality pages that might otherwise not get found, as I covered recently in Worthless Shady Criminals: A Defense Of SEO. In fact, search engines themselves refer people to companies that do SEO, and some have even hired firms to help them. It's not something that would happen if influencing results was always bad.

So, too, influencing trust isn't necessarily bad. Yahoo's system is vulnerable in being ambitious, but it's also strong in being able to tap into things the other systems can't.

Google depends solely on what you like, but that means your more hip and knowledgeable friend that you trust in other aspects of your life can't have an impact on you when it comes to search. Moreover, want to enlist a trusted expert in a field, as described above? You need an ambitious system like Yahoo's that allows that.

It's also noteworthy that Google isn't ruling out social search. On Tuesday -- before Yahoo rolled out its new service [which I have no doubt Google knew was coming] -- I asked Marissa Mayer, director of consumer products for Google, if its new personalized service might evolve into a social search model down the line.

Marissa talked about having worked on a web recommendation tool project in her pre-Google days and was pretty positive about the upside to such systems, I felt. But her experience also taught there are a lot of nuances that need to be taken into account, she said.

"I think there's a lot of potential there, but there's a lot of infrastructure that need to get built there and built well," she said.

Yahoo certainly feels it has the infrastructure. Vulnerabilities? Yahoo says it has this covered. Defenses, plans, self-correcting systems are all supposedly ready to go. Yahoo says it's not being naive about the attacks both overt and unexpected that its system will face.

As Chris wrote yesterday, "We'll see." That's not a cynical statement, either. It's just a fact -- we'll see if it works, and I hope it does.

As Chris also wrote, Google and Yahoo are on "very different paths" in tapping into trust for personalization. So's MSN, and we'll no doubt see Ask Jeeves bring trust into its personalized system as well.

Everyone's heading for that same goal, unique results that give you the best relevancy. Whatever path they take, let's hope they all get there.


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