Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, has been commenting a lot recently about how she wants to get Yahoo back into the search game. At the Goldman Sachs technology conference in San Francisco last week, Mayer reiterated the company’s desire to move back into search, and commented specifically on contextual search being one of the focuses.
Contextual search works by algorithmically trying to determine what you really mean to search for, such as picking up cues from the immediate preceding searches, and presenting results based on that. It is a similar idea to Google’s Hummingbird algorithm, which launched last year
Search engines need to be able to get much more precise results and advertisements for mobile searchers and contextually determine what the user is actually searching for.
Many view contextual search as the next generation of search, since it works based on anticipating what you really want, which generally provides a better user experience. With mobile, people aren't as willing to spend a lot of time refining their search queries or go through multiple pages of search results as people do on desktops.
Mobile is where the traffic is going from desktop, and it makes sense for both the marketing value and a revenue value that Yahoo wants to be in there and potentially take some of that market share from Google.
The same way that contextual search determines what you really mean to be searching for, a search engine can apply the same technology to the ads they serve and present ads that are more directly tailored to the searcher, rather than just strictly off keywords, which should result in higher ad click-throughs. This results in more revenue for the search engine and more traffic for those advertisers.
Many people thought it was a mistake when Yahoo got out of the search game under former CEO Carol Bartz. After Mayer was named CEO of Yahoo, many people speculated that Yahoo could move back into having their own search engine rather than using their current Microsoft search deal. After all, Mayer's background from her early days at Google was in the core search product.
Her past experience will definitely influence her decisions in this area, and she has a lot of knowledge on the inner workings of search, something previous Yahoo CEOs didn't have. She's worked on Google's core search product, so she is familiar with the product and the search industry. It really wasn't surprising that she would try to make inroads into search, and many of us were expecting it.
Unfortunately, it's not as simple as taking their old search algorithm, start crawling the web again, and expect they can compete against Google. The industry has changed and even the way webmasters are presenting their websites has changed.
Then there is the entire issue of spam. There's always the possibility Yahoo could acquire more companies to help solve this issue. But even if they create a great contextual search product, they still have to get people to use it, and right now Google dominates search on every level in the US and many countries worldwide.
How can Yahoo convert people to use their search over Google or Bing? If I was Yahoo, I would start by talking to Apple about becoming the default contextual search for iPhones and other Apple products.
Google is definitely the leader in search, and has the head start on contextual search. However Mayer is now exploring the options from a technical standpoint within Yahoo see how feasible it is.
Will Yahoo be able to topple Google when it comes to contextual search? A lot of it will come down to just how many people they can get to utilize their own search products.