Yahoo’s Spanish Connection

Yahoo has announced it’s hired a top search expert to head new labs in Spain and Chile.

Ricardo Baeza-Yates co-authored “Modern Information Retrieval,” the most widely used textbook on search. The expert on data mining and information extraction will be based in Barcelona and lead both centers, Yahoo announced on Monday.

Yahoo Research’s new Barcelona office will be run in conjunction with the Center for Innovation Barcelona Media, a non-profit industry supported by local industry and the Catalan government; it has ties to Universitat Pompeu Fabra and other local universities.

The Santiago office will be run in cooperation with the Center for Web Research, which was created by Baeza-Yates and is funded by the Millennium Scientific Initiative of the Planning Ministry and hosted by the Faculty of Physical and Mathematical Sciences at the University of Chile. Yahoo Research will collaborate with faculty and students at the university as it does at the Berkeley, Calif. research lab near the University of California at Berkeley.

Yates will be based in Barcelona and report directly to Prabhakar Raghavan, head of Yahoo Research. Yates was born in Chile but has spent the last year on sabbatical in Barcelona.

While it’s the most-trafficked site on the Internet, Yahoo is in second place in the search race, handling 21.8 percent of all searches, with Google providing 47.7 percent, according to Internet audience measurement firm Nielsen NetRatings.

While companies like Yahoo can acquire technology and talent by buying smaller companies, Raghavan said, opening research labs and setting their staffs free to invent is the best way to recruit top scientists. And, while it’s a peripatetic world, usually the lab follows the scientist.

“There are relatively few people on the planet who have a track record of innovation in this area,” he said.

Yahoo hopes the European research facilities will attract talent from across the EU.

“Silicon Valley has done a great job of taking the best minds from Stanford and Berkeley and turning them into companies,” Raghavan said. “Other geographies have these great minds but not the local machinery that turns them into companies.”

There are more Internet companies in Barcelona than you might think, he said, but the proportion of ideas to companies is still high. “We’re into ideas, because Yahoo is all about taking great ideas and turning them into user value.”

In December, Yahoo announced the hiring of DARPA artificial intelligence guru Ron Brachman and the opening of a New York City research lab for him.

Raghavan said competitors had also gone after Yates. “It’s a coup for Yahoo Research to get such a personality,” he said.

When he came on board at Yahoo, charged with bulking up the company’s research muscle, the task seemed daunting, Raghavan added. “But getting people like these on board, we’ve acquired street cred. We can put up this team of search experts against anyone in the world.”

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