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Searching For The Wisdom of The Crowd

There's a giant, inflated brain in Times Square with Yahoo's branding on it. Or at least it looks like a brain.

Yahoo says it's a sign of what users can expect from the giant do-it-all company from Sunnyvale, Calif. as it prepares for the next battle frontier with search giant Google: social search.

Google's been thumping Yahoo for years now in the search space, thanks to its widely-regarded search algorithm, which what exists on the Internet.

But social search is a newer weapon wielded by Yahoo and Google in the battle over Internet search and the billions of advertising dollars spent to support it.

Social search is the parsing of user-generated content that ranges from descriptions of a web site in tags or sometimes natural languages, to questions, to answers.

The practice includes anything from the act of tagging photos, Web sites, or videos, to user-generated answers to user-generated questions.

"We believe that most of the world's knowledge today isn't on the Internet yet," Patrick Crane, vice president of marketing for Yahoo, told internetnews.com.

"It's actually in hundreds of millions of years worth of acquired knowledge in people around the world, in their brains. Hence the giant brain you see in Times Square."

Social search sites and services include Prefound, Answerbag, Google Co-Op, and Yahoo properties like Flickr, del.icio.us and Yahoo Answers.

Web marketers and advertisers love to be on the page users visit when they're making decisions. Yahoo's social search will provide a lot of those types of pages, Crane said.

"What we've discovered from our users as we've started to bring MyWeb information together with Yahoo Answers into Yahoo Search is that for any kind of query where they want to make a decision that additional element of human advice and knowledge is incredibly valuable."

Not to be outdone, Google is on record for recognizing the importance of integrating algorithmic and social search into its Google Co-op and Google Notebook social search services.

But Yahoo thinks it holds a major advantage over Co-op, Notebook and even independent entrants such as Answerbag.com and Prefound.com: a very large crowd.

All social search sites are powered by crowdsourcing, which is the notion of letting the users do the work for other users.

After acquiring two sites adored by early adopters, Flickr and del.icio.us, Yahoo has steadily released new products such as Yahoo Answers, or improved old ones, such as Video, Photos, or MyWeb, to leverage the technologies acquired with those sites while maintaining Yahoo's mainstream, consumer-friendly image.

That's because Yahoo believes mainstream users are the crowd its needs to succeed. Hence the giant brain you see in Yahoo's Times Square ad.

"There's something for everybody in Answers," Yahoo spokesperson Melissa Rische told internetnews.com. "There's a category for everybody. Everybody has life experience in something and it's very easy to use. It is so mainstream."

Publicly, Google has always been more focused on their products than who they want to use them. This remains true for its social search services, Notebook and Co-op.

"Both products aren't really aimed at any particular type of user over another," Google spokesperson Sonya Boralv told internetnews.com. "We hope all of our users would find both of them useful."

But it's all the people that make crowdsourcing work, Crane said, noting that people are a key ingredient of any social search.

"It's a function of scale. If you have the scale, you get the quality. If you have 400 million people on the network and well over 7.2 million people using [Yahoo Answers] alone that drives the quality of content."

"We believe it's a differentiating factor that other competitors just can't match," Crane said.