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Will BOSS Put Yahoo Search Back in Charge?

In a surprise move last week, Yahoo unveiled BOSS, its Build Your Own Search Service program that makes it search infrastructure available to developers, companies and other organizations.

So far, Yahoo has been getting plaudits for its willingness to let others leverage its massive infrastructure of servers, software and search indexing, to build and enhance search services that could well compete with Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO) itself.

The embattled Web giant is also making BOSS available with very few strings attached. For example, users can leverage the system to enhance their own offerings without crediting Yahoo or giving it any kind of public brand recognition.

"The thinking is, it's no longer our product and not necessarily indicative of how we do search," said Senior Director for Open Search Platform Bill Michels in an interview last week with InternetNews.com. He added that Yahoo plans to continue to invest in its own search infrastructure and technology with standard Yahoo branding.

Sue Feldman, IDC's main search analyst, predicts outside companies and developers are going to be attracted to BOSS because Yahoo is reaching out in the right way. "It's symbiotic, rather than parasitic," said Feldman.

"Unfortunately, Yahoo and Jerry Yang are getting pilloried in the press lately, but I applaud their vision, I think they've got this right," she said.

The only main catch in the program is that Yahoo will require BOSS participants to display ads generated by Yahoo and share in the revenue. Companies can prioritize and display results any way they like. For example, the social networking site Me.dium plans to still give its "people search" results highest priority, but use Yahoo's index to tap the vast areas of the Web it lacks the resource to index comprehensively.

The real search market

Feldman thinks that with BOSS Yahoo is recognizing a hard reality of the search market that's not commonly expressed by the press and in other coverage.

"Two-thirds of all queries are done at Web sites that aren't search engines by definition," said Feldman. "In other words, only a third of all search queries are done at the big sites like Google, Yahoo and MSN and others. The rest are people at Amazon looking for a specific item to buy and things like that."

As consumers get more comfortable with the idea of being able to search from anywhere on the Web and, theoretically, become less reliant on the big search engines, Feldman says it makes sense for Yahoo to extend its reach and tap a part of that revenue stream.

"Everyone expects one big vendor will win in search, that's just not true," said Feldman.

Siva Kumar, co-founder and CEO of TheFind, a shopping search engine "for the discovery of lifestyle goods," said he hasn't decided yet whether he will take advantage of BOSS, but applauds Yahoo's effort.

"They are taking a very open approach, letting people do what they want, even changing how search results are displayed or presented," Kumar told InternetNews.com. "That's very different from Google's custom search, where you don't have that flexibility and of course you have to use their branding and search box."

He said it might be useful for sites like his own to be able to offer product reviews and manufacturer's information gleaned from Yahoo's huge index.

"I'm not ruling out using BOSS," he said. "But we have too look more at how running their ads with ours would work. Also, we already have vertical content you can access today that crawls very deeply for the kind of results our users want. Yahoo would be ancillary to what we're doing."