Last week, Yahoo's search results pages underwent probably the most significant change since the service began. Yahoo also increased the price of its Yahoo Express submission service to $299, last month.
For years, Yahoo has followed what I call the "CSP" model of search results: presenting category listings first (the C), then web site listings (the S) and finally matching web pages (the P).
As Yahoo has grown, this model made it likely that users would get overwhelmed by matching category listings, when searching for popular topics. For example, a search for "travel" would find 80 categories, meaning that you needed to hit the "Next" button 3 times before seeing any web site matches.
Of course, many people would immediately find a relevant category in the first page of results and click through to it, thus giving them access to the web site listings compiled by Yahoo editors for that topic. Nevertheless, some people want both category and web site matches all at once, and the Yahoo change has been designed to satisfy them.
"A number of users in our usability tests said they want to see more of those [web site matches” on the first page, said Scott Gatz, general manager of search and directory at Yahoo. "With the changes, we can we present more of those, as well as highlight the concept of our categories."
Matching category links still remain. When found in response to a search, they come at the top of the results, under the heading "Category Matches." You may see up to five category listings. If there are more than five matches, you can access the entire list by using the "Next" link to the far right of the Category Matches heading.
Yahoo has also made its category names more readable. For instance, the "Air Travel" category in the past would have been listed in the search results as "Recreation > Travel > Air Travel." Now all categories have been given short, user-friendly names to appear in the search results.
"For the new folks coming on to the net, they need a little easier way to read what the categories about." Gatz said. "One of the biggest things is making the names shorter and easier for them to understand."
The friendlier names weren't created through an automated process but rather through human review.
"Our surfers actually reviewed each and every last one of our categories and put thought into what the best short name for that category should be," Gatz said.
For example, a search for "california" brings up the "California > Southern California" category link, rather than using just the last two words of the category "path," which would have made it "Counties and Regions > Southern California"
The categories that are listed first also feel more relevant or important than in the past. For instance, a search on "travel" used to bring up some regional listings that probably weren't relevant to many people. Now, categories such as "Air Travel" and "Travel Tips" are right at the top.
Yahoo, cagey as always, won't explain what has been done to produce this improvement. My assumption is that as part of the short-name creation process, editors also flagged important categories in some way, so they'd rank better. I also suspect that the clickthrough measurements that Yahoo conducts are also being implemented to help improve the results.
After the category matches, you may now get up to 20 web site matches. They come under the "Web Site Matches" heading. These are web sites that have been reviewed by Yahoo editors and added to one of its categories. In contrast to category links, clicking on a web site link takes you directly to the web site, rather than to a list of web sites in Yahoo about a particular topic.
Yahoo has also introduced numbering of the web site matches. This aids those who click on a site, then want to return to the results and pick up where they left off to review new sites.
"In our usability tests, the numbers definitely gave people some context as to where they were," Gatz said.
As with categories, the Web Sites listed feel much more relevant than in the past. Again, Yahoo won't say exactly what's being done. My assumption is that, as with categories, they are making more use of clickthrough data.
As a basis for this assumption, try a search for "american flag." Why are the sites shown coming up first?
The first site is about flag football, which isn't at all relevant. However, this underscores that having the words in your title and site description are still very important to Yahoo.
When entering the site's category, we also see that it is at the top of the list. That means it is probably attracting decent clickthrough, especially in that it is also one of the best sites available in this category. The high clickthrough rating, in combination to having the relevant search terms, probably helps land it high in the search results page.
The second site is "Betsy Ross and the American Flag." Reviewing its category shows that another site is listed as "cool." So, how come that site isn't doing better? Again, the words are important here. That cool site lacks the words "American flag" in its title.
The third site, "American Flag Store," has the search terms in its title and shows up in the Most Popular area of its category. That site also is making use of the Sponsored Sites option, within its category. It could be -- and this is really speculative -- that the clickthrough from even the Sponsored Sites area is taken into account, when calculating Most Popular scores. If so, that would be one good reason to consider making use of the program.
As before, it remains important that your site make use of the key terms you want to be found for at Yahoo, in the description and in the title, if possible. It's also important that the title inspire people to clickthrough (as much as possible), assuming that you believe, as I do, that clickthrough is being used as part of Yahoo's ranking scheme. In addition, you want to ensure that your site has the best content you can offer, so people will stay there, as time on site is sometimes used in clickthrough relevancy.
Should you immediately go clicking on your site? I wouldn't recommend this in a massive way. Such actions are likely to be detected and compensated for. However, it probably wouldn't hurt to click on your own site from time to time, either in the search results or when listed in the category results.
Below each web site match is a "More sites about" link. If you click on that link, you'll be taken to category where the web site "lives" within Yahoo. That category will also list similar sites. For instance, searching for "train travel" brings up a web site called "How to Travel Europe by Train." Selecting the "More sites about" link then gives you a list of sites compiled by Yahoo editors about European train travel.
Finally, by using the "Next" button at the bottom of the results page, you'll eventually move past Web Site Matches to the "Web Page Matches" area, as noted by that heading. These are results that come from Google, which is why the Google logo appears at the top of the results page. Selecting links from here takes you directly to matching pages that Google has found from crawling the entire web.
As a reminder, Google results are provided for those times when Yahoo's editors themselves have not categorized anything that seem to match your search topic. For instance, search for "feeding hedgehogs" at Yahoo, and Google results come up immediately. That's because Yahoo's editors themselves haven't reviewed any sites on this topic -- or more appropriately, haven't written a description about any sites that use those words. By "falling through" to Google, Yahoo users can still receive some relevant results.
Of course, if you compare the same search at Google itself, you'll notice that at Google, more matches are found. The results are also slightly different. This is because Yahoo does not dig as deeply into Google's results, which saves Yahoo money. Because of this, if you are trying to do serious research on obscure topics from across the entire web, you're better off going directly to Google itself.
Under each Web Page Match, you'll see a "More Results From" link. Unlike the "More sites about" link described above, this link brings back other pages from the same web site as the page that is listed. In other words, you won't get a list of web sites on a particular topic. Instead, you'll simply be shown a list of web pages from a particular web site, which match your search terms.
Another significant change at Yahoo was the increase in its "Yahoo Express" submission price from $199 to $299.
The program is required for anyone submitting to one of Yahoo's commercial categories. It is the first price change for the service, since it launched back in February 1999, with the exception of the June 2000 increase to $599 for adult site submissions.
The move follows LookSmart's lead in August, when LookSmart raised its "Express Submit" price from $199 to $299. Yahoo declined to say whether LookSmart's increase had made it more comfortable taking its own price up. Instead, the increase was due to high demand and the need to keep quality up, Yahoo said.
"There's really been a strong demand for that product," Gatz said. "People still see the value in such a product. They see it as a very good one-time investment."
It's hard to see why a 50 percent price increase is necessary to keep the service level up, but it's much easier to understand that Yahoo no doubt saw the listings it provides as undervalued, especially coming after the LookSmart move. And, even at the higher price, getting listed in Yahoo remains one of the bargains in terms of gaining web traffic.
Getting non-commercial content listed within non-commercial categories remains free at Yahoo. To help site owners (along with users) understand what's commercial, Yahoo's commercial categories now clearly say "Yahoo Commercial Directory" in the yellow reverse bar at the top of the page.
For example, compare the commercial "Movie Memorabilia" category to the non-commercial movie humor category:
If you're submitting, be aware that Yahoo no longer requires that you first find a category. Instead, you can leave it to the editors to pick one for you. However, it is highly recommended that you still make your own category selection.
Finally, Yahoo is continuing to use its "Most Popular" listings, in some categories. One reader wrote last month asking why these disappeared. Gatz said that if you've seen them disappear from some categories, this is probably a case where Yahoo's editors have decided that the category didn't require a Most Popular list.
How Yahoo Works
Very detailed guide to the process of submitting successfully to Yahoo, available to Search Engine Watch members. Explains what Most Popular sites are, reasons to carefully choose a category and tips on how to get non-commercial content listed.