Yahoo isn’t giving up on search. It is, however, giving up on trying to catch Google by offering users just another set of “ten blue links,” Vish Makhijani, general manager of Yahoo! Search told InternetNews.com.
To that end, Yahoo today re-launched its search, replete with special features designed to improve the experience and better enable rapid, accurate searching. Chiefly, that will be due to the new Yahoo Search Assist feature and efforts to integrate audio, video and photos into general Web search results.
Makhijani characterized Search Assist as a “step beyond” pre-filled search queries; It’s a drop-down menu that allows searchers to narrow and broaden their queries by topic and concepts, delivered via an AJAX interface. There’s also a new feature called Yahoo! Search Shortcuts, which integrates ratings, reviews, photos, and official websites into a box at the top of a search results page.
The new features are supposed to differentiate Yahoo from crowd of search engines that are starting to look all the same.
“If you cover up the logo [on a search results page], it’s very hard to distinguish ten blue links from ten blue links,” Makhijani said. “But from an industry point of view, some branching away from those ten blue links is starting to happen. That’s providing opportunities for differentiation.”
That opportunity is crucial, Makhijani said, because “absent compelling differentiation, [users] don’t have a reason to switch search engines.”
And Yahoo needs users to consider switching. According to Nielsen//NetRatings, Google again dominated search market share in August, with 4.2 billion searches to Yahoo’s 1.5 billion. That’s 53.6 percent to 19.9 percent of market share.
One hitch in Yahoo’s differentiation plan, however, might be that the new changes may not be unique enough to stand out.
Back in 2005, When Ask.com was still AskJeeves.com, it announced Zoom, a navigation tool that lets the users narrow down their search queries based on topics and concepts, like Yahoo Search Assist. The feature has since become an integral part of Ask and its campaign to take market share from the top four search engines on Nielsen//NetRatings’s chart.
A year later, Internet pioneer Bill Gross’ business factory Idealab launched search engine Snap.com based largely on the premise that, similar to Makhijani’s view, users are tired of the generic search result format.
And more recently, Google began mixing images, video and books results with its general Web search results when it launched Universal Search in May.
Still, though Yahoo’s search innovations might not lead the cutting edge, there’s reason for optimism at the company.
Yahoo search advertisers may have jumped on its new Panama advertising platform bandwagon first, but investors are starting to follow. In September, Yahoo’s share price started at $22.73 and finished at $26.84, an 18 percent gain.
Additionally, Makhijani also said Yahoo sees some deficiencies in chief rival Google’s user base, adding that he believes Google’s growth been inflated by a series of distribution deals it signed with third parties such as MySpace and Dell. According to Nielsen//NetRatings, Google saw 39.8 percent more searches in August 2007 than during the same month in 2006.
“Google was very aggressive last year in buying traffic,” Makhijani said. “It’s purchased market share. It’s not what I call ‘hearts and minds’ market share.”
Google did not immediately answer to requests for comment, but it doesn’t need to. However acquired, the profit Google earns from its traffic generally speaks to the success of its search platform.
And Yahoo is evidently listening and learning. Makhijani said that his company is beginning to win new kinds of since Panama launched. He pointed to a recent agreement with IBM to be included in Lotus Notes.
More are on the way, too, he added. If they weren’t, Makhijani said he would have left Yahoo after the company re-organized in December 2006.
“I finally saw the opportunity to be on my toes instead of back on my heels,” Makhijani said. “Last year was a tough year from a distribution deal point-of-view, but the era of that material monetization gap is pretty much over.”
Yahoo isn’t the only major search player to be rethinking its strategy these days. The company’s relaunch comes a week following Microsoft’s announcement of plans to revamp its own search offerings to better fare against Google.
The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant’s Live Search team said that it plans to beef up relevancy but also introduce specialized “vertical” content portals in response to video, local, image, products and health-related searches. Specially designed results pages aim to showcase richer data (like photos, prices, and reviews in response to product searches) to encourage repeat traffic.
Microsoft spokespeople told InternetNews.com last week that the moves were intended to better satisfy current users with fundamental improvements on its basic search, rather than to try to regain market share from Google.
Still, Makhijani indicated that Yahoo remains unperturbed.
“It’s actually very hard to do the [search] basics,” Makhijani said. “There are some interesting ideas out there, but even Microsoft’s efforts show that not even a lot of money is enough.”