Yahoo has announced that it will release a desktop search product after the New Year, putting the search engine firmly in the desktop search race that Google kicked off earlier this year and that other major search engines have already declared that they'd be entering as well.
Ask Jeeves, Microsoft's MSN and AOL have all confirmed to date that they will launch desktop search applications, leaving Yahoo as the only major service remaining only in "rumor" status. That's now ended.
Yahoo plans to release a licensed version of X1, a powerful but relatively expensive tool that was recently rated well by CNET. Unlike X1, Yahoo's version will be offered free to consumers. Yahoo also promises integration with Yahoo's web search and other vertical search properties, an integration that will grow over the coming year, as the tool matures.
How exactly that integration will happen remains to be seen. The tool is only now going into non-public beta test, and I haven't yet gotten a copy to play with. We'll report more when that becomes available.
Yahoo did say that it plans for any integration to prevent leakage of desktop search queries from getting back to Yahoo itself. This has been an issue for some with Google's service.
For the most part, Google will have no idea of what someone's searching for on their own computer. However, in some instances where people go from web to desktop results or vice versa, Google could tell that a particular query term has what I call "desktop intent." Yahoo tells me that its tool will eliminate this entirely.
File Types & Interface Issues
Yahoo also touts that its tool will index many more file types than Google's. It's true that Google's tool is restricted compared to existing tools out there, such as X1 or Copernic, in terms of file coverage. But for many, what Google currently covers may be enough -- and it's an incredibly easy tool to download and install.
At only 450K, grabbing the Google application for use takes no more bandwidth than reading a few web pages. In contrast, the current X1 tool is a 6.3MB download. Yahoo's version may be lighter, which would help in reaching out to the broadband-challenged.
Personally, I've also found Google's application-less interface to be very compelling. Unlike other desktop search programs, Google Desktop doesn't require that you go into a particular program to do your search. Instead, you use a web page that looks just like the Google home page, and you get back results that look just like ordinary Google web results. The format is easy to understand and user-friendly.
The downside is Google doesn't provide some of the sorting and refinement options that rival tools offer. Yahoo hopes that will be another reason that consumers seek out its tool.
Yahoo's tool will also offer taskbar searching. This means that you can search using a box on the Windows taskbar. That would be helpful, given that I currently find it incredibly inconvenient that if I don't have a browser open, I've got to take an extra step to start searching with Google Desktop.
I've asked Google if there are plans to add a "Desktop" search option to its popular Google Toolbar or Google Deskbar. The response was the standard "no plans to announce but it's something we'd consider" line. Well, start considering soon! FYI, there is a workaround on this for Google Deskbar users.
Yahoo tells me its tool will go out to the public in early January. That's going to put it behind Ask Jeeves, which launches its own tool next week on December 15. MSN will also be out with its own tool by the end of the year. I'm working with a beta release of that right now but can't comment more beyond that. Instead, here's the latest statement the company is issuing on the subject:
"We have publicly stated that it is our intention to release a beta of our new desktop search technology by the end of the calendar year in the US and our timeline is driven by the quality of the service - we will launch MSN desktop search when we feel that the service has met the quality bar our consumers expect and deserve," said Justin Osmer, MSN product manager.
And AOL? The company plans its own desktop search application that is packaged as part of the new AOL browser that's in beta testing. Any AOL member can access this by signing into AOL, then using the keyword "beta" to reach the beta download area. I've just downloaded the beta but haven't had a chance to play with it. But the desktop search is powered by Copernic, another well regarded desktop search app. It was CNET's editor's choice in a recent review of desktop search apps. (Google Desktop was unrated in that review because it was too new but drew plenty of praise).
And so the timeline recap:
- October 14: Google Desktop released
- December 15: Ask Jeeves desktop search due for release
- December 31: MSN desktop search due for release by this date or earlier
- January 31: Yahoo desktop search due for release by this date or earlier
- Sometime In 2005: AOL's combined browser and desktop search should be out at some point
Desktop Search Winner? Searchers!
Will Google having been first give it a key advantage over rivals? Honestly, who knows? We know that over half-a-million people downloaded it in the first two weeks according to Majestic Research. The downloads since almost certainly have exceeded a million if not more, though the actual installed user base is unknown.
As said, the tool is light to download, easy to use and useful enough for many people. In addition, I'd consider it a key search memory feature for Google, which otherwise lacks this type of personalization that most of its rivals offer. More on this in my review of the tool: Google Desktop Search Launched.
On the flipside, the more powerful features some of the rival tools offer, combined with the distribution through major search sites, will certainly grab other users. Those wanting to do MP3, photo or PDF searching, for example, need something other than Google Desktop -- at least unless Google begins to upgrade its beta product.
So who will win the hearts-and-minds of desktop searchers remains to be seen. Chances are, everyone's going to get a share. But the real winners are the desktop searchers themselves. We started 2004 with only a few fee-based desktop search tools. We're going to end with a great selection of free ones, finally -- and long-overdue -- making it easy for anyone to find material on their own computers as they can in searching the entire web.