RealTime IT News

Cooking Up Social Media

BERKELEY, Calif. -- Yahoo opened the doors of its new research lab to the public on Tuesday, as it expanded its news search to include blogs and images from its Flickr photo-sharing site. These two events are not unrelated.

"The move to augment professional journalism with grassroots journalism signals Yahoo's commitment to fusing mainstream content with user-generated content to give consumers a more complete search experience," the company statement about Yahoo News Search read. That fusion spreads throughout Yahoo, as the company sets its sights on user-generated content as a way to beat Google .

Yahoo announced the partnership in July, saying the company's engineers would collaborate with students and faculty from UC on search, and social and mobile media. Mere months later, the focus is clearly on social media.

University of California at Berkeley faculty and students already are making their mark on Yahoo, executives at the luncheon event said, and two graduate students had a strong influence on Tuesday's announcement.

Dannah Boyd and Cameron Marlowe, two UC blogging experts, acted as senior advisors to Yahoo's blog search product team, according to Horowitz.

Marc Davis, a professor on leave from UC's School of Information Management and Systems who is director of the research lab, spent the past several months meeting with nearly every product group at Yahoo.

"We want to enable the billions of media consumers to become producers," Davis said. "And clearly, Yahoo is poised as a company to make significant changes in the world of social media."

Davis said that mobile devices such as camera- and videophones already are turning consumers into producers. At the same time, the contextual information created by these devices is a better way to enable multimedia search than the current method of attempting to analyze meta data. Community-made content such as tagging is a better way of determining relevance for media than analyzing links to the content, he said, while shared content from friends and communities of interest may be more valuable to that found by standard Web search.

"What we do here is focus on socio-technical design," Davis said. "The fundamental problems can't be solved by technology alone."

None of this is news to Yahoo, which has generally beaten archrival Google to the punch when it comes to social media, that is, consumer-generated content and communications.

Google bought Pyra Labs, maker of the Blogger platform, in February 2003. The software lets people easily create blogs or search for others that are hosted by Blogger. Yahoo 360 didn't hit the scene until March 2005, but it went live with social networking components including the ability to set up buddy lists to receive RSS feeds from blogs and integration with local search, so that users could see their friends' ratings of local businesses.

While Google acquired photo-management company Picasa in July 2004, it focused on retouching digital photos, not on sharing them. Yahoo bought photo management service Flickr in March 2005; its popularity hinged on letting users choose to make their shots public, while others could tag photos to make them available for search.

Despite rolling out its own search technology in February 2004, Yahoo lags far behind Google in terms of total volume of searches completed.

But it's far ahead when it comes to the amount of time users spend on Yahoo. According to a July 2005 report by Majestic Research, Yahoo had 83 million unique visitors in June, and they spent more than two hours apiece on the site. Google had 62.4 million unique visitors who each spent slightly more than 22 minutes on Google.

Yahoo clearly sees social media as a competitive differentiator from Google. Jeff Weiner, senior vice president of Yahoo's search and marketplace division, said that any company that makes revenue from ads is a de facto media company. "The right question is, as a media company, what technologies will you focus on?" he told the audience of journalists, academics and city officials.

His answer: "We need to provide the technology to facilitate the ability of everybody to take what they know and share it with world around them."