Yahoo's Search Engine Continues Evolving

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Last October, Yahoo made the most significant change to how its search engine has operated since its birth, when it replaced its own human-powered listings with Google's crawler-based results. Just seven months later, the "New Yahoo Search" was rolled out in early April, complete with an online tour to tout the revamped service.

So what's different this time? Quite a bit, though fortunately the new improvements and features add to the earlier enhancements rather than distract from them.

Streamlined Look

A new page dedicated just to Yahoo Search has been added, allowing those who want to bypass all the Yahoo portal and network information that crowds the regular Yahoo home page. The Yahoo Search page presents a Google-like pure search face to the world. Default searches hit Yahoo's web search index, but tabs along the left-hand side of the page provide direct access to directory, news, Yellow Pages, image and map searching.

"A lot of people have said 'I want something a little more search oriented'," said Jeff Weiner, Yahoo's senior vice president for search and marketplace. "We're essentially giving our consumers a choice. When it comes to just pure searching, we think this is going to be delivering more of what our consumers want."

Regardless of whether you search from the Yahoo Search page or the Yahoo home page, you'll also encounter new tabs that appear at the top of the search results page. By default, the "Web" tab will have been selected and you'll be shown matching listings from across the web, still powered at the moment primarily by Google.

Select the Directory tab, and your search will be run only against sites that are listed within Yahoo's own human-compiled index of web sites. The News tab brings matches from across Yahoo's news content. All new tabs have been added for image searching, with information powered by Google Images, and Yellow Pages searching.

The easy access to Yellow Pages information is especially nice to see. When I need a local service, I still find myself reaching for my printed Yellow Pages, because that "low-tech" search method still works extremely well.

Searching Through Yellow Pages

Of course, online Yellow Pages searching isn't new, but it may be something that's overlooked by searchers. It's certainly worth a try at Yahoo, if your default web search for local information has come up disappointing.

For example, I've got a trip back to the US soon and need to stop by a skateboard shop. A search for skateboard shops in pasadena brought up a few possible matches, but would a Yellow Pages search do better? It was easy to check. By clicking on the Yellow Pages link at the top of the new Yahoo search results page, the same query was run against Yahoo's Yellow Pages information.

Sadly, there were no matches. But looking at the page that came back, I could see why. My original query was parsed, so that the city "Pasadena" was correctly placed into the city box of the Yellow Pages' search form. As for the subject? That was left as "skateboard shops in." By changing this to "skateboard shops," I did come up with a match.

Clearly the parsing in this case could have been better. However, another solution for searchers is to simply to do a Yellow Pages search from the very start, via the Yahoo Search home page. Ultimately, I'm not expecting perfection from the Yellow Pages option yet, but I'm glad to have easier access to it, for when I want to try.

New Shortcut Tricks For Yahoo Search

As part of the changes, Yahoo has formally unveiled a number of "shortcuts," methods to get directly to answers or specialty search results using words. The new Yahoo Tour has a nice page that illustrates these as well as a short guide to them, but here's also a rundown:

  • Get Maps: Use the word "map" and a location when searching, and you'll be shown an actual map at the top of your results, such as "map 1600 pennsylvania avenue washington dc" or "1600 pennsylvania avenue washington dc map"

  • Get Weather: Use the word "weather" with a place name and you'll be shown the weather for that area, such as with "pasadena weather"

  • Get Local Listings: Use a US ZIP CODE and a word, and you may be treated to local listings from Yahoo's Yellow Pages information, such as for "90210 shopping"

  • Get Dictionary Definitions: Need the definition of a word? A really slick new feature is to use the word "define" before the word, which will cause a definition to appear at the top of your results, such as for "define epitome." And your misspellings may even get caught, as well: "define epitime" and "define epitame" were both correctly identified as misspelled, for example.

  • Get News: Start your query with the word "news," and if Yahoo has any matching news content, it will display this prominently at the top of its results, such as for "news tornadoes"

  • Get Yahoo: Yahoo has a variety of services other than search, such as Yahoo Mail and Yahoo Shopping. If you know the name of a service and want to get to it quickly, just enter the name without the word Yahoo and with an exclamation mark, such as "mail!" or "shopping!," and you'll be taken right to it.

Ask Jeeves also recently moved to insert direct answers into its results, in what it calls "smart answers," so you may be assuming that this will be the next big thing to sweep search engines since Google revived AltaVista's original use of tabs.

This may well be the case, but ironically, we've had direct answers before. Back in 1998, then greatly expanded in 1999, Excite was doing what both Yahoo and Ask Jeeves have rolled out years later, using trigger word shortcuts and showing "answers" within its matches. Regardless of who did it first, it's nice to see such functionality return.

Finally, here's another last but useful Yahoo trip. Beside the title of each web page listing at Yahoo, you'll see a little icon. It's supposed to look like two computer windows on top of each other. Click on it, and the web page you've selected will appear in a new window, while the original window with your search results will remain.

In Conclusion

Overall, Yahoo described the latest changes as part of an "evolution" to improve its search service. It's a good word to use. Yahoo essentially had its revolution back in October, when it shifted to crawler-based results. The latest useful changes add but don't interfere with those previous changes. That's welcomed.

Indeed, it's especially important that the race by Yahoo and other search engines to catch Google does not subject searchers to massive redesigns every few months. AltaVista pursued such a strategy in the past, and its regular relaunches did little to reverse that service's decline in popularity. In my view, this was because most of the relaunches did little to improve the service's core relevancy. In addition, it's confusing and frustrating for loyal users to find things no longer work as they once did.

A longer, more detailed version of this article is
available to Search Engine Watch members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member